Los Angeles Times
Thursday, October 16, 1997
Anti-Bilingual Drive's Tone Is Key for Latinos
Education: Poll finds most favor teaching in English, but sentiment
may turn against the initiative if campaign seems to bash the ethnic group.
By MARK Z. BARABAK, Times Political Writer
Californians may strongly oppose the state's system of bilingual education.
But the consensus quickly unravels over how it should be fixed--and whether
voters should even try.
Nowhere is that split more striking than
within the state's growing Latino community, where much of the political
establishment has lined up against an anti-bilingual education ballot proposal
currently favored by 84% of Latino voters.
Is the political leadership out of step with
the larger Latino community on an issue of enormous practical consequence?
Or is the leadership several steps ahead, as suggested by the history of
two other issues with strong emotional resonance--illegal immigration and
Partisans on both sides of the bilingual
education issue professed little surprise at a new Times poll that found
enormous support for a ballot proposal promoting English-only instruction
that would have limited exceptions. Students could continue receiving bilingual
instruction if their parents specifically requested it and could prove
that their children would learn better that way. Under the current system,
students not fluent in English may be taught for years in their native
The measure, currently in the signature-gathering
phase, is aimed for the June ballot.
Approaching the bilingual education issue
from vastly different directions, opposing sides converge on two key points:
They agree that all children must become fluent in English. And they concur
that the current system ill serves the needs of those children.
For now, that sentiment translates into overwhelming
80% support for the ballot measure, according to the Times poll.
Where the two sides sharply diverge--and
where some Latino political leaders differ from their larger community--is
over how to remedy the system and whether the blunt instrument of a ballot
initiative is better than a legislative solution.
As Rafael Gonzalez, an initiative opponent, put
it, "If you ask Latino parents if they want their children to learn
English, you'd probably have close to 100% saying 'yes.' But the initiative
process opens a whole political Pandora's box of divisional politics."
Indeed, analysts suggest that the tone of
the debate just now getting underway could go a considerable distance toward
deciding whether instruction almost exclusively in English becomes state
law with the broad support it currently enjoys.
The proposed June ballot measure would require
English language instruction for the state's roughly 1.3 million children,
or one in four, who are not fluent in English. About 77% of those students
speak Spanish at home.
The measure's leading proponent, Silicon
Valley businessman Ron Unz, frankly admits that the initiative's goal,
for all intents and purposes, is to end bilingual education in California.
To the measure's co-sponsor, Santa Ana schoolteacher Gloria Matta Tuchman,
the bilingual education system has "failed a whole generation."
Opponents of the initiative don't necessarily
challenge that. They just disagree--fiercely--over why it has happened.
"Bilingual education has never been
implemented properly," said Art Torres, a former state senator and
chairman of the California Democratic Party, who points to the state's
huge shortage of bilingual teachers.
There are contradictory data to bolster both
sides of the political argument.
Some studies have found that bilingual programs
prepare children better academically. Others have found that such students
never become fully fluent in English.
What those sorts of studies fail to reflect,
of course, is the raw emotionalism that surrounds the issue, particularly
for some older Latinos.
Harry Pachon, a Claremont Graduate University
expert on Latino politics, recalls how decades ago children who lacked
English skills were placed in classrooms set aside for the mentally retarded.
Even so, forgetting that ugly history, Pachon said his surveys routinely
find what the Times poll turned up, namely that Latino parents are even
more enthusiastic about English instruction than white parents.
The pertinent question, he said, is whether
Latino support for the ballot measure will hold up through the searing
heat of a statewide campaign--particularly given the still-raw feelings
over Proposition 187, the 1994 anti-illegal-immigration initiative, and
last year's Proposition 209, banning racial and gender preferences in state
and local governments.
"The problem becomes when the usual
cast of suspects starts showing up on behalf of the initiative," Pachon
said, citing rabid anti-immigration foes. "It will be interesting
to see how [initiative backers] finesse it so this doesn't become perceived
as the 'third strike' against the Latino community."
The polling history of Propositions 187 and
209 offers a cautionary lesson for opponents of bilingual education.
A Times poll conducted in September 1994--only
two months before the vote--found that Latinos supported Proposition 187
by a margin of 52% to 42%. By election day, after a harshly negative campaign,
77% of Latinos voters ended up opposing the measure.
Similarly, a July 1996 poll on Proposition
209--four months before the vote--found Latinos essentially split. On election
day, though, 76% opposed the rollback in state affirmative action programs.
San Mateo County Supervisor Ruben Barrales
said the views of Latino leaders are likely to gain importance as the campaign
unfolds--and the debate becomes more polarized.
"Folks will begin looking at the different
individuals and organizations to hear what they're saying," said Barrales,
a Latino Republican who has held off endorsing the Unz initiative until
he feels confident about the direction of the campaign.
Barrales cited Wednesday's endorsement of
the measure by Jaime Escalante, the legendary former East Los Angeles calculus
teacher, as one encouraging sign that the campaign may not turn into another
round of Latino bashing.
Once voters start looking to their political
leaders, Barrales suggested, it will become clear whether the Latino political
establishment and the community it represents are in lock step or marching
in different directions.
Times education writer Richard Lee Colvin contributed to this story.