VOTE si on Proposition 227, say the Mexican-American principal and the Mexican immigrant mother. Vote for “Ingles para los Ni?os.” Most of the media dollars for Ron Unz’s “English for the Children” initiative are paying for Spanish-language radio ads, which went on the air in Southern California this week. To end bilingual education, Unz is running “the most bilingual campaign” ever, he says, and perhaps the first in which the contents of the Spanish ads are the same as the English ads.
A software millionaire, Unz has spent $640,000 of his own money on the Proposition 227 campaign, more than half the total budget.
Get past the irony, and his logic becomes clear. Proposition 227 is favored by two out of three likely voters in recent polls. Almost certainly, it’s going to win. But the way it wins will determine whether this is seen as a vote about educating immigrant children or about bashing immigrants. Unz needs to win with substantial Latino support.
In the Field Poll, conducted the last week in April, 73 percent of whites, 74 percent of Asians, 66 percent of blacks and 58 percent of Latinos said they planned to vote “yes.” Only 1 percent of Latinos were undecided.
But a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, done the first week in May, showed Latino voters split 48-48 on Proposition 227, down 10 points from PPIC’s April survey.
Proposition 227 calls for teaching students English by teaching them “overwhelmingly” in English. They’d start in a special class for students with limited English skills, moving to a mainstream class as soon as they picked up a “working knowledge” of English.
Bilingual education programs, which teach primarily in students’ first language while they’re learning English, would survive only if parents of 20 students in the same grade requested and qualified for a “special needs” waiver. It’s likely the initiative will end most bilingual programs statewide.
Without Latino support, a victory for “English for the Children” could be a victory for divisiveness and distrust, nativism and nastiness. The context will be Proposition 187, which tried to bar illegal immigrants’ children from public school, and Proposition 209, which ended race-based preferences, leading to a sharp drop in Latino and black admissions at Berkeley and UCLA.
To a remarkable extent, the debate so far has centered mostly on how to teach English, not on all the entangling issues of culture and ethnicity. It’s been the education establishment, the ethnic establishment and the political establishment against Ron Unz and two-thirds of the multi-ethnic electorate.
The “no” campaign has been feeble. Latino politicians haven’t been vocal, cowed by early poll numbers that showed overwhelming Latino support for 227. The teachers’ unions have been distracted by fighting the anti-union Proposition 226. Only bilingual educators have defended their program with any energy.
On the “yes” side, the anti-immigration groups have stayed out. Anti-immigration activists hate Unz almost as much as they hate bilingual education because of his vocal opposition to Proposition 187. He ensured their opposition to Proposition 227 by including $50 million a year from the General Fund to teach English to adult immigrants who promise to tutor students who aren’t fluent in English. (The tutoring pledge keeps the adult English classes within the single-subject rule for initiatives.)
It worked: The immigrant-bashers bashed 227.
It also created a line of attack for no-on-227 ads, which suggest teaching English to immigrants is a “new spending program” that will take money away from the schools and won’t help kids learn English.
It’s interesting to note that the “no” ads in Spanish don’t hit adult English classes; the focus is on letting “parents and teachers decide what is best for us.”
Raising the money issue could backfire. Voters think they’ll save a bundle by not teaching children in Spanish — more than the cost of teaching English to their parents.
(The Legislative Analyst estimates total state education spending wouldn’t change.)
Targeting English classes for adults also gives Unz another chance to stress that immigrants want to learn English, and want their children to learn English. They want to be able to help with homework and talk to the teacher. But those bilingual education zealots won’t let them.
There’s no doubt many “yes” votes for 227 will be motivated, at least in part, by fear that immigrants aren’t assimilating, anger at multiculturalist claims and resentment because Grandpa never got Italian classes and Grandma never got taught in Slovak. Many Californians worry that our society is fracturing because we can’t all talk to each other in the same language.
But I think most voters — whatever their family language or ethnicity —
really do want the children of Mexican immigrant families to succeed in our schools and in our society. If nothing else, Californians want them to grow up to pay taxes and pay into the Social Security fund. They’ll need to be proficient in English. The only question is how?
Foreign-born or native-born, Latino or non-Latino, we are not divided in our goals for our children. All our children. Let’s hang on to that thought in the final weeks of the election season.
Joanne Jacobs is a member of the Mercury News editorial board. Her column appears on Mondays and Thursdays.