As California’s population continues to grow and become more culturally diverse, there are questions that cannot be avoided, yet may not be answerable:

Are we Californians, with a common, legally recognized culture, or a collection of disparate, even mutually hostile, tribes delineated by ethnicity, language, gender, age or sexual orientation?

Do rights and privileges accrue to the individual, or are they awarded to and taken from groups on the basis of moral claim or political pull?

In a state with an extremely high proportion of immigrants, incredible economic disparities and residents who speak upwards of 150 languages, can there be such a thing as color-neutral public policy?

And ultimately, can any society buffeted by what California is experiencing maintain cohesion or is it destined to deteriorate into a ceaseless war for cultural dominance?

Every two years, it seems, California voters are confronted, however indirectly, with these questions. And to compound the dilemma, the voters themselves are overwhelmingly dominated by one narrow segment of the larger population, being much whiter, older and more affluent than Californians as a whole. Thus, even when voters render a verdict, it merely touches off more warfare in the courts.

Proposition 187, which would have denied most public benefits to undocumented immigrants, was adopted overwhelmingly in 1994 and ultimately voided by the federal courts.

Proposition 209 was enacted by a similarly large margin in 1996, but many months of litigation ensued before a federal appellate court decided that it could, indeed, bar racial and gender preferences in college admissions and government hiring and contracts.

And now we have Proposition 227, a measure that would abolish bilingual education programs now in effect and give students with little or no English proficiency just a year in “sheltered immersion” to learn.

Nothing is more basic in any culture than language. Indeed, there is no such thing as common culture without a universally accepted method of communication. But what is the most effective way of achieving the goal — one professed by those on all sides of Proposition 227 — of having children rapidly become English-proficient?

To Silicon Valley tycoon Ron Unz and other backers of the measure, it’s immersion. Gov. Pete Wilson said Monday he’s “strongly leaning” toward endorsing the measure, which will go before voters on June 2. Wilson cites Israel’s policy of immersing newcomers in Hebrew to build a common Israeli culture as an example worth emulating.

But critics see the Unz measure as a sink-or-swim approach that will leave behind those who can’t make the transition in a year. President Clinton is opposing the measure and calling for a non-binding, three-year limit on bilingual instruction.

After years of foot-dragging on the issue, meanwhile, the Legislature is ready to send to Wilson a milder reform that would let local school districts decide how the 1.4 million students with limited English ability are to be handled.

As practiced now, bilingual education is an expensive and ineffective mess. But would the Unz approach, a one-size-fits-all system that doesn’t account for individual differences in intelligence or linguistic ability, be any better? And wouldn’t the Legislature’s alternative merely allow urban school districts, under political pressure from self-interested groups, to maintain the failed status quo?

Once again, voters are being handed a take-it-or-leave-it solution to a complex social paradox. And no matter what they do, it is unlikely to advance California’s transition from what it was to what it will become.

DAN WALTERS’ column appears daily, except Saturdays. E-mail: [email protected]; mail: P.O. Box 15779, Sacramento, 95852; phone: (916) 321-1195; fax: (916) 444-7838.

Comments are closed.