Los Angeles Times
Sunday, February 15, 1998
PERSPECTIVE ON PROP. 227
Take High Road in Bilingual Debate
If the initiative is seen as anti-Latino, brace for a rerun
of Prop. 187 ugliness. A compromise bill could spare us.
By FRANK DEL
First came Proposition 187. Now brace yourselves for Proposition 227.
That is the number that has been assigned on the June 2 primary ballot
to the "English for the Children" initiative, a measure by Silicon
Valley entreprenuer Ron Unz that would eliminate bilingual education in
Proposition 227 will be the last of nine
statewide measures on the ballot. But it could well be foremost in many
voters' minds as they head to the polls. For the Unz initiative is on the
verge of becoming the latest symbol of California's difficulty adjusting
to demographic change.
The outlines of what could be another ugly,
ethnically and racially divisive campaign became evident last week when
the Telemundo television network and La Opinion, Los Angeles' Spanish-language
daily, released the results of a public opinion poll conducted by Latino
polling expert Sergio Bendixen.
Bendixen polled 503 Latino parents with children
in the Los Angeles Unified School District to gauge their views on Proposition
227 and bilingual education in general. Of the 200 parents with children
in the bilingual program, an overwhelming majority, 88%, said it was beneficial.
When told that the Unz initiative would eliminate it in favor of a one-year
program of English immersion, 49% of those same parents opposed the measure
and 43% were in favor of it.
That seems to contradict a poll last October
by this newspaper, which found that California Latinos favored the Unz
initiative 84% to 16%. (The electorate as a whole favored it by 80%.)
But the results are not necessarily contradictory,
according to Bendixen and Times Poll Director Susan Pincus.
"We read people the wording of the Unz
initiative as it will appear on the ballot," Pincus said. "If
[Bendixen] read them a summary, that could account for different results."
That is what Bendixen did, and "once
Latinos understand the initiative, opinion shifts against it," he
explained. But my point here is not to dwell on the technicalities of public
opinion polling. It is to sound a warning.
The dramatically different results of the
two polls suggest that in the hands of skilled political operatives, Proposition
227 could be used to divide the California electorate along ethnic lines,
as Proposition 187 did four years ago. Although both Anglo and Latino voters
agreed in preelection polls that illegal immigration was a problem, Latinos
turned against Proposition 187 because they came to see it not as a solution,
but as part of a backlash against Latino immigrants. Don't be surprised
if opponents of Proposition 227 try to cast it in the same negative light.
The sad irony is that among both proponents
and opponents of Proposition 227 are people of goodwill whose bona fides
as advocates for immigrants' children are hard to question.
Unz, the initiative's author, is a Republican
activist who courageously campaigned against Proposition 187 four years
ago, when Gov. Pete Wilson shamelessly demagogued the immigration issue
to get reelected. On the other side are members of groups like the California
Assn. of Bilingual Educators, who have struggled honorably to make bilingual
education work despite inadequate funding and a shortage of teachers.
For the record, I've written columns in the
past praising the work of individual bilingual teachers and a few specific
bilingual education programs. But I have no illusion that effective bilingual
education is being provided to the many children who could benefit from
it. And like any California voter, I know that a good way to get government's
attention is to use the initiative process. So I have not decided how I'll
vote on Proposition 227.
But the Legislature could save us voters
a lot of grief if it moved to reform bilingual education before the Unz
initiative is approved, as I expect it will be.
Languishing in the Assembly is a bill by
state Sen. Dede Alpert, a San Diego-area Democrat, that could mitigate
some of the problems that the Unz initiative tries to fix. It also could
spare our state some of the anger that could surface if the Proposition
227 campaign gets as ugly as the fight over Proposition 187 did.
Alpert's bill would give local school districts
more flexibility in teaching non-English-speaking students, which should
satisfy those conservatives who advocate local control. But it would penalize
those districts that can't show improved student results, which should
satisfy the liberals who don't trust local school districts to do right
by Latino kids.
Alpert's bill passed the state Senate with
bipartisan support last year but stalled in the Assembly. It will move
only if the new Speaker, Los Angeles Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, pushes
for it--as he should. By helping defuse Proposition 227 before the heavy
electioneering begins, Villaraigosa would show that he is a leader not
just of one ethnic group or one partisan faction, but of all California.
And if the bill passes the Legislature, Wilson
should sign it into law. That would redeem him in the eyes of many Californians
who remember the ethnic divisiveness he exploited four years ago. It might
even prove that Proposition 187 was an anomaly and not the abysmally low
standard of ethnic politics by which future California elections must be
Frank Del Olmo is Assistant to the Editor of The Times and a regular