Time for Hispanics to use the ballot box to make a difference

In the aftermath of the overwhelming California vote to end bilingual education, Hispanic people can either get mad or get even.

And political analysts say we have the power to grab more attention by getting even — through the ballot box — than getting angry on radio talk shows or newspaper editorial pages.

Each of fifty-two of the nation’s 435 congressional districts have more than 100,000 Hispanic constituents, showed figures released in April at the Power of the Hispanic Vote conference held in Washington, D.C. Seventeen of the 52 districts are represented by Republicans. Any kind of turnover in these 17 GOP seats would threaten Republican control of the House.

At the conference, former U.S. Secretary of Housing Henry Cisneros said 208 of the 271 electoral votes needed to win the presidency are located in 10 states with large Latino populations, including California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Texas. And Hispanic voters more than doubled their share of the national vote from 2 percent of the electorate in 1992 to 5 percent in 1996.

California’s primary did not produce all bad news. A record four Hispanic candidates advanced in statewide races and will be on the general election ballot. Another Robert Dornan-Loretta Sanchez congressional battle is taking shape in Orange County. About one in six California voters are Hispanic.

“They’re ready for a breakthrough,” Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at Claremont Graduate University, told the Houston Chronicle about the fastest-growing segment of the California electorate.

“Whether or not it will come is another question.”

Why should Hispanics be ready to show their clout at the ballot box? And why target the GOP?

Let’s review the record. Overwhelming approval of Proposition 227 to end bilingual education was destined. California is fertile ground for any proposition built upon ignorance, immigrant scapegoating and the myth of the oppressed white male.

Just as with their successful effort there to roll back affirmative action, the hypocrisy of the mostly conservative and Republican supporters of this initiative was shockingly naked.

For their own children, they demand Washington, D.C., and statehouses get out of education decisionmaking. They cry, “leave the decisionmaking to our local educators and school districts that know best about the uniqueness of our student populations and challenges facing them.”

But when it comes to mostly Mexican and poor children, they say it’s all right for an entire state to dictate a one-size-fits-all remedy. They categorized all bilingual efforts as a failure, without even considering the other factors that have an impact on the education of a child.

The proposition’s author, Ron Unz, a millionaire and conservative Republican, has no children or background in education. He never has been in a bilingual education class.

But he and his fellow ignoramuses blamed the bilingual education system for the high dropout rate for Hispanics. Yet they ignored numbers showing only 30 percent of California children needing bilingual education were in such classes.

The rest had to be in English-first classes because of the shortage of bilingual teachers, reported The New York Times. Amazingly, these English-first classes are the same kind that Prop 227 supporters favored.

A report issued by a panel convened by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., earlier this year in Washington found that many Hispanic students drop out because of crumbling, overcrowded and unsafe schools; and a lack of teachers with appropriate training and language abilities. Called “No More Excuses,” the report carried a Hispanic education action plan that included $ 66 million to train 20,000 bilingual teachers and $ 30 million to transform schools with high dropout rates.

But doing the right thing costs money, and increasingly, people such as Unz consider it a waste to spend special resources on people outside their class and color. That’s why Hispanics should be ready to get involved at the only place to get attention, get even and get respect: the ballot box.

A survey commissioned in April by the Spanish language TV station Univision found 83 percent of Hispanics who were eligible either strongly or somewhat supported bilingual education. And a majority of those surveyed said they believed the GOP either ignores them or takes them for granted.

Eighty-two percent of those surveyed approved of the job President Clinton is doing and 66 percent like the performance of congressional Democrats. By contrast, only 43 percent approved of the work of congressional Republicans.

Truly, the survey and demographic numbers are in place for Hispanics to send the GOP a message they won’t forget in November.

But if we Hispanics do not break through at the ballot box this fall, the only people we should be mad at will be ourselves.

Tim Chavez is a columnist for The Tennessean in Nashville, Tenn. Write to him at The Tennessean, 1100 Broadway, Nashville, TN 37203.

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