Wednesday, May 27, 1998
Calif. Battle Goes Beyond Bilingual
LOS ANGELES -- When people here talk about Proposition 227, a measure that could virtually wipe out bilingual education in the state's public schools if it passes next week, it's clear they're looking beyond the schoolhouse door.
Many see this nationally watched ballot initiative as a vehicle to discuss a larger question: how to assimilate Californians who continue to grow more ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse.
That was the case at a recent candidate forum in Burbank, 12 miles from downtown Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley. The residents and state legislative hopefuls in attendance debated the bilingual education measure along with issues ranging from home schooling to highway congestion.
The forum's sponsors included the League of Women Voters, which opposes Proposition 227, also known as the "English for the Children" initiative. Political analysts here say Proposition 227 opponents face a tough battle, despite the fact that they have scores of endorsements from civic organizations and nearly every education group in California and several beyond.
Statewide polls show that more than 70 percent of voters favor the initiative. While Republicans back it most strongly, the measure's supporters cross all partisan, racial, and ethnic lines. The latest surveys indicate that more than half of the state's Latinos polled support it.
So the opposition is banking on voters like Patricia Wilson and Clarli Wilson to turn out for the June 2 primary election.
The two women, who are not related, listened intently to speakers at the Burbank forum. Patricia Wilson, a 66-year-old community college instructor with three children, is a Republican. Clarli Wilson, a 68-year-old mother of two, is a Democrat. Both women said they support bilingual education but think it needs fixing. Both said they will vote against Proposition 227.
"It's imperative that kids aren't dumped in a classroom without help," Clarli Wilson said. "This is an appalling, punitive measure."
And Patricia Wilson said she thinks more children will drop out without bilingual education. "But I feel a bit like a voice out in the fog because it seems everyone I know will vote for it," she said.
'Too Little, Much Too Late'
Under Proposition 227, students with limited English skills would be taught, in most cases, for no more than a year in "sheltered English immersion" classes. Under certain circumstances, parents who wanted bilingual education, in which students are taught in their native languages for at least part of the day and gradually move into English, could seek a waiver.
Just 30 percent of California's 1.4 million limited-English-proficient students now receive bilingual education. The state's bilingual education law expired in 1987, but the state has continued its requirement that schools teach in students' native languages "when necessary."
The state school board last month granted districts maximum flexibility over what methodology they use to teach LEP students.
Just last week, Gov. Pete Wilson threw his support behind Proposition 227 and vetoed a bilingual-education-reform bill that many saw as a last-ditch effort to undercut support for the initiative. The Republican governor said the legislature's effort was "too little, and much too late."
For years, lawmakers have wrangled over how to educate LEP students, and many here blame legislative gridlock for pushing the issue to the ballot box.
The chief sponsor of 227, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron K. Unz, has gone out of his way to court Hispanic support, but some speculate that Mr. Wilson's endorsement may undercut that effort.
As competitors in the 1994 Republican gubernatorial primary, Mr. Unz opposed and Mr. Wilson supported another highly charged ballot initiative, Proposition 187, which sought to block illegal immigrants' access to a wide range of public services, including education. Though the measure has been tied up in court since voters approved it, it remains a powerful negative symbol with Latinos.
The English initiative has tapped a nerve at a time when polls show Californians' top concerns are crime and education, said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at Claremont Graduate University.
"This is an issue that has legs," she said. "Part of it is a spillover from the immigration debate, part is a generalized frustration with California's schools."
Union Coffers Strained
Mr. Unz, a 36-year-old millionaire with no children, is the initiative's chief campaign manager and financial backer, having contributed more than $600,000. According to campaign filings, three men make up the campaign's other major donors, each giving tens of thousands of dollars.
Henry Gradillas, a former principal of Garfield High School, the East Los Angeles school featured in the 1987 film "Stand and Deliver," and Fernando Vega, a Democratic activist and former city council and school board member from Northern California--not Mr. Unz--appear in the campaign's TV and radio ads.
Late last week, while the Los Angeles City Council voted to oppose 227, Mayor Richard J. Riordan pledged $250,000 of his own money to launch a Spanish-language ad blitz in support of 227.
The opposition has hired Richie Ross, a political consultant associated with Democratic causes, to run the "Citizens for an Educated America: No on Unz" campaign.
The state's education community opposes the initiative, as does the Clinton administration and the state's major gubernatorial candidates from both parties.
But with resources from the California teachers' unions stretched thin--their priority is defeating another initiative that would require union members to give permission every year before political contributions could be deducted from their paychecks--the "No on Unz" effort has been limited.
In addition to the teachers' unions, the campaign's largest single donors include the California Association for Bilingual Education and the state's school administrators' association. But most of the contributions have come from individual educators.
As of March, the pro-initiative camp had raised slightly more than $1 million; the opposition had collected nearly $740,000, according to state records.
Although much has been made of Hispanics' views on Proposition 227, political analysts point out that Latino adults made up just 11 percent of Californians who voted in the 1996 general election. And while no one knows who will turn out to vote June 2, pollsters like Mark DiCamillo of the independent Field Institute in San Francisco say primaries tend to draw an electorate that is older, more Anglo, and better-educated than the state as a whole.
They draw voters like Allyn Haycox, a 76-year-old retired dentist who said he has never missed an election. He planned to vote yes on 227.
"Bilingual education simply isn't working," the self-described moderate Republican said at a break during a recent meeting of the Glendale Host Lions Club. "The theory may be OK, but it sure seems like it's not working in the real world. And in this country, the language is English."
In another corner of Los Angeles County, English for the Children representative Henry Gradillas had a tough time convincing his audience that bilingual education has failed and that the initiative would improve language-minority children's access to college and the American middle class.
"I'm for bilingualism. I love my culture. ... But I want our kids to be doctors, lawyers, engineers," the former principal said at a forum sponsored by the predominantly Hispanic city of Pico Rivera.
The themes the anti-Proposition 227 campaign has hit seemed to have resonated with the audience: The initiative would strip local control in exchange for a state mandate.
It is not a true referendum on bilingual education but rather an untested experiment. Its $50 million-a-year program to teach English to adults who in turn tutor LEP children would siphon money from the schools. And a provision that holds educators and school officials personally liable for failing to carry out the initiative would trigger a slew of lawsuits.
Guadalupe Angeles, a bilingual teacher and Pico Rivera resident, drew thunderous applause for the question she shouted out: "Mr. Gradillas, who should we sue when your program fails?"
But not everyone saw the issue as clear-cut. Alicia Hernandez, a 39-year-old mother of three, said she was torn.
Ms. Hernandez, who was raised in California in a Spanish-speaking home by parents who came from Mexico, said she made it without bilingual education, so others also should be able to. But she realizes she might not have made it without the help of an English-speaking aunt.
"It just seems like some people want California to be Mexico again almost," she said. "But you have to adjust to this way in America."
For teachers, the issue is often no less fraught.
Union leaders like Wayne Johnson, the vice president of the 270,000-member California Teachers Association, say their membership is almost evenly split on bilingual education. For some, it's a question of philosophy or ideology. For others, it's a job issue.
In scarce supply, bilingual teachers can receive bonuses of up to $5,000 in some districts. And many veteran teachers resent being asked to go through additional training in order to teach LEP students. While acknowledging such divisions, union leaders have mounted internal campaigns to urge their rank and file to vote against Proposition 227.
Dana Koon, a 3rd grade teacher at Ramona Elementary School, said he used to support bilingual education. But the 53-year-old classroom veteran said he'll vote for 227 because he believes there is now no incentive for moving children into the English mainstream.
But Socorro Vilches, a bilingual teacher at Gates Street Elementary School, said she cannot imagine what her classroom will look like if the initiative passes next week and becomes law 60 days later.
Some teachers and administrators have discussed defying it. And the 35-year-old teacher knows it would likely be challenged in court. But she's bracing for the worst: "I think it will be chaos."