Hispanic Link News Service

Week of March 29, 1998

Anti-Bilingual Initiative: Confusing in Any Language

Everyone seems to have a strong opinion about bilingual education -- if not several. Polls on the anti-bilingual Proposition 227 have been contradictory, to say the least. That's because they have posed simplistic questions about a complex issue.

Ask whether schools should provide intensive English classes for immigrant children, and you'll get overwhelming agreement. That's how the Los Angeles Times Poll last October characterized the English-only ballot measure, sponsored by businessman Ron Unz. Not surprisingly, the Times found 80 percent support among registered voters statewide, including 84 percent of Latinos.

But ask whether native-language instruction should be used to help children keep up in school while they are learning English, and people like that idea, too.

A Times poll in November reported that 60% of Los Angeles County voters approved of bilingual education, while 37% were opposed.

In February, a poll commissioned by Los Angeles's Spanish-language media, the daily newspaper La Opinión and television station KVEA, found a 68% approval rating for bilingual education among Latino parents in that city, including 88% of those with children in bilingual classrooms.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see what's going on here. Opinion polls are only as accurate as the questions behind them.

In this case, the questions have ranged from confusing to downright misleading. Compounding the problem, Californians remain largely oblivious to the details of the Unz initiative, whose full text has yet to appear in a major newspaper.

Any of the following provisions of Proposition 227 would seem controversial enough to influence the polls, if respondents were only aware of them:

  • Bilingual education programs would be dismantled -- whether good, bad, or indifferent -- regardless of the wishes of parents, educators, or local school boards.
  • Children would be arbitrarily limited to one year of special English instruction, then required to "sink or swim" in regular classrooms.
  • Teachers and principals could be personally sued for financial damages if caught using a language other than English to assist a child.
  • $50 million would be spent in each of the next 10 years on a questionable program to train adult immigrants as English tutors.
  • Once approved, the English-only mandate would require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to amend or repeal.

We wondered how Californians would answer a question that more accurately summarized Proposition 227 and how their responses would compare with those in previous polls. So, with the help of students at the University of Southern California School of Education, we conducted our own experiment.

We asked 130 registered voters the Los Angeles Times Poll question: "There is a new initiative trying to qualify for the June primary ballot that would require all public school instruction to be conducted in English and for students not fluent in English to be placed in a short-term English immersion program. If the June, 1998, primary election were being held today, would you vote for or against this measure?"

We asked 121 others a modified question: "There is a new initiative trying to qualify for the June primary ballot that would severely restrict the use of the child's native language in school. This initiative would limit special help in English to one year (180 school days). After this time, limited-English-proficient children would be expected to know enough English to do school work at the same level as native speakers of English their age. The initiative would dismantle many current programs that have been demonstrated to be successful in helping children acquire English, and would hold teachers financially responsible if they violate this policy. If passed, schools would have 60 days to conform to the new policy. If the June, 1998, primary election were being held today, would you vote for or against this measure?"

In response to the Times question, 57% said they would vote for Proposition 227. But in response to our modified version, only 15% said they would do so. The difference is statistically significant.

We believe it's politically significant, too. It shows that passage of the anti-bilingual initiative on June 2 remains far from a certainty.

The more Californians learn about Proposition 227, the more likely they are to recognize it as a threat to children, parents, teachers, and taxpayers. The more they consider its extreme provisions, the more likely they are to vote No.

For opponents of Proposition 227, the most effective slogan may be: Read the Fine Print.

James Crawford is a Washington, D.C.-based writer on language and education policy. Stephen Krashen is a professor and Haeyoung Kim is a graduate student at the School of Education, University of Southern California.

For more information on the University of Southern California poll, see Bias in Polls on Bilingual Education: A Demonstration, by Stephen Krashen, James Crawford, and Haeyoung Kim.