Take High Road in Bilingual Debate

If the initiative is seen as anti-Latino, brace for a rerun of Prop. 187 ugliness. A compromise bill could spare us.

First came Proposition 187. Now brace yourselves for Proposition 227. That is the number that has been assigned on the June 2 primary ballot to the “English for the Children” initiative, a measure by Silicon Valley entreprenuer Ron Unz that would eliminate bilingual education in California.

Proposition 227 will be the last of nine statewide measures on the ballot. But it could well be foremost in many voters’ minds as they head to the polls. For the Unz initiative is on the verge of becoming the latest symbol of California’s difficulty adjusting to demographic change.

The outlines of what could be another ugly, ethnically and racially divisive campaign became evident last week when the Telemundo television network and La Opinion, Los Angeles’ Spanish-language daily, released the results of a public opinion poll conducted by Latino polling expert Sergio Bendixen.

Bendixen polled 503 Latino parents with children in the Los Angeles Unified School District to gauge their views on Proposition 227 and bilingual education in general. Of the 200 parents with children in the bilingual program, an overwhelming majority, 88%, said it was beneficial. When told that the Unz initiative would eliminate it in favor of a one-year program of English immersion, 49% of those same parents opposed the measure and 43% were in favor of it.

That seems to contradict a poll last October by this newspaper, which found that California Latinos favored the Unz initiative 84% to 16%. (The electorate as a whole favored it by 80%.)

But the results are not necessarily contradictory, according to Bendixen and Times Poll Director Susan Pincus.

“We read people the wording of the Unz initiative as it will appear on the ballot,” Pincus said. “If [Bendixen] read them a summary, that could account for different results.”

That is what Bendixen did, and “once Latinos understand the initiative, opinion shifts against it,” he explained. But my point here is not to dwell on the technicalities of public opinion polling. It is to sound a warning.

The dramatically different results of the two polls suggest that in the hands of skilled political operatives, Proposition 227 could be used to divide the California electorate along ethnic lines, as Proposition 187 did four years ago. Although both Anglo and Latino voters agreed in preelection polls that illegal immigration was a problem, Latinos turned against Proposition 187 because they came to see it not as a solution, but as part of a backlash against Latino immigrants. Don’t be surprised if opponents of Proposition 227 try to cast it in the same negative light.

The sad irony is that among both proponents and opponents of Proposition 227 are people of goodwill whose bona fides as advocates for immigrants’ children are hard to question.

Unz, the initiative’s author, is a Republican activist who courageously campaigned against Proposition 187 four years ago, when Gov. Pete Wilson shamelessly demagogued the immigration issue to get reelected. On the other side are members of groups like the California Assn. of Bilingual Educators, who have struggled honorably to make bilingual education work despite inadequate funding and a shortage of teachers. For the record, I’ve written columns in the past praising the work of individual bilingual teachers and a few specific bilingual education programs. But I have no illusion that effective bilingual education is being provided to the many children who could benefit from it. And like any California voter, I know that a good way to get government’s attention is to use the initiative process. So I have not decided how I’ll vote on Proposition 227.

But the Legislature could save us voters a lot of grief if it moved to reform bilingual education before the Unz initiative is approved, as I expect it will be. Languishing in the Assembly is a bill by state Sen. Dede Alpert, a San Diego-area Democrat, that could mitigate some of the problems that the Unz initiative tries to fix. It also could spare our state some of the anger that could surface if the Proposition 227 campaign gets as ugly as the fight over Proposition 187 did.

Alpert’s bill would give local school districts more flexibility in teaching non-English-speaking students, which should satisfy those conservatives who advocate local control. But it would penalize those districts that can’t show improved student results, which should satisfy the liberals who don’t trust local school districts to do right by Latino kids.

Alpert’s bill passed the state Senate with bipartisan support last year but stalled in the Assembly. It will move only if the new Speaker, Los Angeles Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, pushes for it–as he should. By helping defuse Proposition 227 before the heavy electioneering begins, Villaraigosa would show that he is a leader not just of one ethnic group or one partisan faction, but of all California.

And if the bill passes the Legislature, Wilson should sign it into law. That would redeem him in the eyes of many Californians who remember the ethnic divisiveness he exploited four years ago. It might even prove that Proposition 187 was an anomaly and not the abysmally low standard of ethnic politics by which future California elections must be measured.

Frank Del Olmo Is Assistant to the Editor of The Times and a Regular Columnist

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