There never was more than a small chance that there could be a rational debate about bilingual education in California. But when Gov. Pete Wilson tossed in his stink bomb last week, even that chance vanished.

Wilson was half-right in his criticism of SB 6, the bipartisan bilingual reform bill that he vetoed: It was not too little, but it was too late. By the time it passed last month, Proposition 227, the initiative that would all but eliminate all bilingual programs in California, already seemed to have an irresistible head of steam behind it.

But in vetoing the bill, authored by Democrat Deirdre Alpert and Republican Brooks Firestone, and endorsing 227, Wilson did precisely what its sponsor, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, was trying hard to avoid: turn it into yet another divisive ethnic issue. Wilson had never shown the slightest interest in bilingual education until 227 came along.

Wilson had run on Proposition 187 in 1994, the measure that sought to deny schooling and other services to illegal immigrants, and had thus earned the enmity of hundreds of thousands of Latinos in California. Unz, who challenged Wilson in the 1994 Republican primary, opposed 187. No love is lost between them.

There never has been much doubt that 227 will pass. The polls all show it with strong support. But Unz had hoped to get a majority vote even from Latinos, thus reinforcing his contention that he was serving, not undermining, the cause of Latino parents and children. Wilson may pretty much have put an end to that hope.

Further undercutting the hope was the disclosure last week that A. Jerrold Perenchio, CEO of Univision Communications, one of the two biggest Spanish-language media companies in the country, had dumped a whopping $1.5 million into the campaign against 227. Univision had already been running wall-to-wall editorials attacking Unz’s measure in a campaign that Unz suggests is a self-serving attempt to retain its Spanish-speaking audience into the next generation, and the next.

Making the picture even stranger is that Perenchio, who is worth an estimated $1.5 billion, had been a major Wilson supporter — he contributed more than $400,000 between 1994 and 1996, even after the governor embraced Proposition 187.

Now Perenchio’s money will be used to reinforce an anti-227 campaign that, until recently, rested not on principled arguments about effective teaching and learning, but on a poll-driven strategy devised by campaign consultant Richie Ross, which attacked the measure’s provision calling for the expenditure of $50 million a year to improve English literacy among Hispanic adults.

Thus, we had the bizarre spectacle where speakers from MALDEF and other Latino groups that consistently support higher social service spending were declaring that 227 should be defeated because California couldn’t afford the cost — all told, roughly one-sixth of 1 percent of the state’s annual school spending.

Ross says his new ads will stress the fact that the four major candidates for governor, Republican Dan Lungren and Democrats Al Checchi, Gray Davis and Jane Harman, all oppose 227.

If he were smart, he’d also include the fact that Wilson supports it — especially in the ads that run in the Spanish-language media. That ought ought to bring out the Latino vote — not enough to beat the measure, but enough at least to spare the leadership of many of the Latino organizations who are Ross’ clients the possible embarrassment of being repudiated by their own rank and file at the polls.

Wilson’s veto of the Alpert-Firestone bill made no policy sense at all. For anyone concerned about reform of California’s troubled bilingual programs, the bill would have provided both flexibility and accountability at the local level — and thus assured reasonable reform. Even if Wilson genuinely thought the bill was too weak, it would have provided a backup in the unlikely event that 227 failed. If 227 passes, the bill is moot. Republican Lungren says he would have signed it.

The sense behind the veto — if there is any — thus must rest largely on spite and in the narrowest political calculations: How to be a skunk at Unz’s picnic and, at the same time, associate yourself with yet another popular issue — not a hot button like immigration in 1994 or affirmative action in 1996, but at least a warm button, one that resonates with some of the same resentments.

There have already been groups of teachers and administrators threatening to disobey and defy 227 if it becomes law. That defiance seemed to reinforce the complaint made by Unz and other critics that California’s rigid bilingual programs were designed more to serve their teachers and staffs than the children who were supposed to be their beneficiaries. Wilson’s politics can easily be used to justify that defiance.

Lost in the political maneuvering is the hugely complicated question of which programs work for which kids in which circumstances, and which do not. The most comprehensive review of the research indicates that results vary greatly and that no universal approach works in all cases.

Those nuanced arguments had largely vanished from the debate even before Wilson’s veto of SB 6, which recognized that complexity, and his embrace of the one-size initiative, which does not. But his moves last week pretty much kill any chance of reason on this issue for some time to come. Unz, at the very least, deserved credit for his earnestness in raising it. Wilson gives it a kiss of death.

PETER SCHRAG’s column appears in The Bee on Wednesday. He can be reached by fax at 321-1996; or by letter at Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852-0779.

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