The Bilingualism Debate Remakes California Politics

Over the past two decades, there has been no more potent symbol of the tension over immigrants and how they assimilate than bilingual education. We have come to think of it in ideological rather than instructional terms, to approve or disapprove according to our political affiliations. Since federal law first required that public schools provide special language instruction to English learners, liberals have generally rallied in support, citing the benefits of maintaining immigrant children’s ethnic and linguistic heritage. Conservatives and anti-immigrant activists, meanwhile, have tended to react against such measures, arguing that today’s immigrants are not as eager to “Americanize” as their predecessors were. The racial implications are clear.

But in California, where socially divisive ballot measures have recently sparked national debate, this characteristic political split is becoming a thing of the past. Beyond the state’s rapid demographic shifts, what is striking to observe here today is how both liberals and conservatives are refraining from rushing into potentially racially charged issues. And there’s no clearer example of that than in their responses to a recent ballot measure that would all but abolish bilingual education in California’s public schools.

When “English for the Children” first surfaced last May, it looked like the logical political descendant of the state’s recent campaigns against illegal immigration and affirmative action — the newest target for the state’s disproportionately large Anglo electorate. Presumably, much of the white electorate, led by conservatives and anti-immigrant activists, would line up to support the initiative, while liberals and Latinos would reject it.

But with Election Day only four months away, an entirely different political dynamic has emerged. Surprisingly, polls show that the majority of Latino voters favor the initiative. And neither the state’s Republican Party nor the ascendant Latino political leadership has stepped forward to spearhead campaigns for or against the ballot initiative. This new detente is a marked shift from the contentious racial battlefield of California’s past few elections.

The new educational initiative would reduce an uneven, controversial and widely misunderstood program to a single year of transitional classes for children who speak English as a second language. Despite its name, bilingual education has nothing to do with bilingualism — and never has. The language of the current policy is both simple and vague in stating its primary goal: “as effectively and efficiently as possible, to develop in each child fluency in English.” The vast majority of bilingual programs already expect children to move into mainstream English classes after three or four years of instruction in their primary language. They are designed to teach children how to read and write in their native language in the belief that they will then be better able to learn English.

The implementation of these programs varies widely from district to district. In fact, only 30 percent of California’s 1.4 million limited-English students are now in bilingual programs. And the jury is still out as to whether bilingual education can be effective on a wide scale. A year ago, the National Research Council released a report claiming that politicization of the issue was hampering reliable research. Add all that uncertainty to California’s current political scene and you come up with some surprising results.

Until recently, the state’s Republican Party could back a potentially racially divisive campaign like “English for the Children” without tempting electoral fate. Whatever else it may have been, Proposition 187 — the measure on the 1994 ballot that denied educational and medical benefits to illegal immigrants — was an attempt to turn back the Latinization of the Golden State. And Proposition 209, the initiative against affirmative action that passed in 1996, was a soon-to-be minority group (whites) attempting to level a playing field many felt had turned against them. Within the next four years, according to the state Department of Finance, non-Hispanic whites will become a minority group in the largest state in the union.

But whites are still the majority at the voting booth, comprising 74 percent of California’s voters in 1996. And while Latinos make up nearly one-third of the state population, they have been proportionately underrepresented in the state’s electorate. For decades, both major parties have routinely factored Latinos out of their voting calculus.

But, beyond demographics, the state GOP has reason to fear the fast-growing Latino electorate. Anger engendered by Proposition 187 and the partial denial of government benefits to legal immigrants have pushed Latino civic and political participation rates to all-time highs. Mexican immigrants are applying for citizenship at historically unprecedented levels. In the 1996 presidential election, Latino voters cast ballots at a higher rate than the state’s voters as a whole, and they also punished the GOP by voting more heavily Democratic than they had before.

As a result, California’s Republican leadership is wary of attaching the party to any initiative that could open them up to new charges of being anti-Latino or anti-immigrant. Indeed, state GOP chairman Michael Schroeder, who personally opposes bilingual education, has publicly distanced the party from the “English for the Children” ballot measure.

The State Republican Caucus, which most likely would have championed this measure a year ago, is split over how to deal with the initiative. Rod Pacheco, who in 1996 became the first Latino Republican elected to the Assembly in 115 years, says that among Republican lawmakers “there’s a reticence to plunge headlong into a political issue until we’ve surveyed the whole scene to see what impact it would have on other populations.” Three months ago, Republican strategist Stuart Spencer warned that the party was committing “political suicide” by alienating Latinos.

Yet the early polls have shown that Latino registered voters support the initiative by as big a margin as 66 percent to 30 percent — though the numbers may not remain as lopsided once the media campaign begins in earnest. Those figures are forcing the state’s Latino activists and lawmakers to rethink their strategy on bilingual education (not long ago, they would have gone down fighting any attempt to overhaul it). And while most caucus members oppose the ballot initiative, they are reluctant to resort to calls of racism to fight it.

The growing political power and maturity of the 17-member State Latino Caucus has also made Latino lawmakers far less parochial than they once were. For the past year and a half, the Latino leadership has adopted the slogan “Latino Issues Are California Issues,” showing its determination to better straddle the hyphen between its ethnicity and its Americanness.

At the same time, civil rights-era issues that once would have garnered unanimous support have been declining in importance. According to a survey conducted last year by Fernando Guerra, a political scientist at Loyola Marymount University, Latino officials don’t consider bilingual education among their top five cutting-edge issues. So, while the Latino political elite will fight “English for the Children,” they will not gamble large amounts of money or political capital to do so.

The coordinator of the campaign to fight the initiative has vowed not to inject “challenges of racism” into the debate. Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, thinks this non-racialized strategy is a lesson learned from the ill-fated campaigns to defeat the anti-illegal immigration and affirmative action initiatives. “The leadership was using race in 1994 and 1996. That rhetoric may have driven up the yes vote,” he says. “If you get up to say it’s racist, you tend to lose credibility.”

The political no-man’s land into which this initiative has descended is strangely reflective of its sponsor, Ron Unz, the software entrepeneur who challenged Gov. Pete Wilson in the 1994 Republican primary. Unz does not include immigrant bashing in his portfolio. Indeed, while Wilson was riding the anti-immigrant wave of Proposition 187 to an electoral landslide, Unz was a featured speaker at a 70,000-strong pro-immigrant rally in October 1994.

Unz is acutely aware that his victory will be morally hollow if a substantial portion of the Latino electorate does not support it. He has framed the measure as a civil-rights cause undertaken on the behalf of Latino immigrants and their children, and chosen a Latina bilingual teacher for his co-chair.

Even if some opponents of the initiative racialize the campaign in the next few months, their attempts may backfire. “It takes two to tango,” says Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican strategist who has lamented the party’s treatment of Latinos. “If the Unz campaign has no tinge of racism, then the other side won’t be able to use it either.” Unz has worked hard to keep race out. After all, it wouldn’t take much for wary Latino voters — no matter how they feel about bilingual education — to feel browbeaten if the debate takes on the slightest racial tone.

Shifting demographics and recent bruising political battles have created an environment in which nobody wants to fire a racial shot. And while there’s no guarantee that the newfound civility will survive this or future campaigns, there is no doubt that the past few years have made California’s political establishment more aware of the need to better negotiate the state’s racial and ethnic diversity. “It almost makes one think that we’re turning in the right direction,” says Pacheco. Of course, none of this actually means that Californians have suddenly learned how to love one another — just that playing the race card no longer ensures a winning hand.

Gregory Rodriguez, an associate editor at Pacific News Service, is a research fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy.

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