Contra Costa Times
Tuesday, April 28, 1998
Foes of 227 Note Loss of Local Control
As the battle over Proposition 227 drew its first shots of partisan politics from the White House and the governor's office Monday, it illustrated how the campaign to preserve bilingual education in California schools is not being fought on the merits of the program.
Don't look for television, radio advertisements or presidential speeches extolling the virtues of teaching immigrant children math and science in their native language while they're learning English.
Instead, the campaign against Prop. 227 and the Clinton administration are criticizing the measure for taking away local control.
The initiative on the June 2 ballot would abolish most bilingual education for school children and replace it with a one-year English immersion program.
U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley, outlining the administration position Monday, called the initiative a "one-size-fits-all approach" that "simply ignores the individual needs of each child and certainly is an educational straitjacket for teachers and parents."
The president, who will arrive in the Bay Area on Friday, might use part of his weekend trip to California to campaign against the initiative, said White House spokesman Mike McCurry.
Gov. Pete Wilson said the president should stay out of the debate. Wilson said he had not decided whether he favors the proposition, but "I'm strongly leaning that way." He accused Clinton of using the issue to play politics.
"I frankly think he has no business, I think the U.S. Department of Education has no business, substituting his judgment for that of the people of California," Wilson said.
McCurry said the California vote could affect bilingual programs nationwide.
"There's some reason to believe that federal bilingual education programs are at some risk because of measures pending in Congress that would cut funding for those programs," McCurry said.
At the same time, the administration is not jumping to the defense of bilingual education. Riley said he "join(s) all Californians who are unhappy with the status quo."
The current California system is a combination of bilingual classes and methods similar to the immersion programs proposed in Prop. 227.
Instead of mandatory immersion, the administration is calling for setting a nationwide non-binding goal of limiting most children's participation in bilingual programs to three years.
With five weeks to go before the election, with the latest statewide polls showing up to 75 percent of likely voters support the measure, the president and the statewide campaign against the initiative must change a lot of minds to defeat it.
"Right now it looks like the support is pretty overwhelming," says UC-Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain. "You never say never, but you do say highly, highly unlikely."
Ron Unz, the author of the initiative, is so confident of victory that he's talking not about whether Prop. 227 will win, but by how much.
"I don't think there's much doubt about our winning on Election Day," Unz says. "I don't think even our opponents think that, given our poll numbers, we'll lose.
"The most important thing is not whether we win but how we win and that the initiative be perceived as a unifying, rather than a divisive, initiative."
Unz has many political factors working in his favor:
But, this race is not over, cautions Mark DiCamillo, managing director of the Field Poll.
"To use these polls to make any predictions of an election that is still over a month away is wrong," he said.
"The public hasn't yet been exposed to all the things that they are going to be exposed to. Right now it's reacting to the concept behind the initiative. Eighty percent of all initiatives start out ahead in the concept stage."
For opponents to defeat the initiative, they will have to find simple issues on which to attack it.
Trying to teach the public the merits of bilingual education in the short time that's left simply won't work, says Mark Baldassare, who conducted a statewide poll for the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California.
"If you had six months to a year and that issue was the only issue being discussed, that could take place. But what we have between now and June 2 is information overload for the voters."
Making it even harder, the opposition campaign doesn't have an emotional button to push, says Cain.
"It's not your pocketbook or your life. So it's hard to turn it around with some dramatic ad," he says.
So what messages might work for initiative opponents? The polls found Prop. 227 vulnerable on the local control issue.
"It's a simple message and it fits with a populist theme that runs through a lot of public opinion in California," says Baldassare.
The state Legislature last week approved a bill to allow school districts to decide which bilingual education programs work best. Prop. 227 would largely eliminate that local decision-making.
In Baldassare's poll -- even though three of four likely voters backed the initiative -- 55 percent said want local school districts to decide whether to keep their bilingual education programs.
Richie Ross, the Sacramento consultant running the media campaign against the popular initiative, said it will focus on local control and spending called for in the initiative.
The campaign will also emphasize initiative opposition from key political leaders, including Clinton and state Republican Party Chairman Michael Schroeder, and groups such as the PTA and League of Women Voters.
The state legislative analyst's review of the initiative concluded that its net cost cannot be predicted.
But, Ross said, opponents of the initiative will focus on one section for which the spending amount is clear. That section requires spending $50 million a year for 10 years on English classes for adults who, in turn, promise to tutor children not proficient in English.
Baldassare is dubious focusing on that one item will help opponents. "Cost factor opens up a can of worms in terms of not just what is the cost of the initiative, but what is the cost of the existing programs," he says. "I don't know how well that issue will hold up to campaign conditions."
Associated Press contributed to this story.