Los Angeles Times
Monday, April 27, 1998
White House to Announce Opposition to Prop. 227 Policy
The Clinton administration, after much debate, is expected to
repudiate popular California initiative to ban bilingual education. Ballot
measure is called 'an extreme approach.'
PETERSON, Times Staff Writer
WASHINGTON--The Clinton administration, after months of spirited internal
debate, has decided to formally oppose California's Proposition 227, which
would ban bilingual education, according to officials in the White House
and the Department of Education.
Education Secretary Richard W. Riley is expected
to announce the White House decision as early as today. He also is expected
to point out that the administration is considering moving toward a goal
of limiting participation in bilingual programs to three years.
"The overriding goal here is to make
sure kids learn English," said one well-placed administration official.
"As we looked into this, we became convinced that [Proposition 227]
was not the right way to do that. That kind of extreme approach is likely
to result in fewer kids learning English and fewer kids doing well in other
Proposition 227 would replace today's patchwork
of bilingual programs, some of which can last for years, with a one-year
immersion in English instruction for those with limited proficiency. The
overwhelming majority of students then would be shifted into English-speaking
So popular is the measure with the public--it
enjoys a support level of about 70% in a recent poll--that Clinton's opposition
would have to influence a huge slice of the electorate before it could
affect the outcome of the June 2 vote.
Although many Latinos are among those supporting
Proposition 227, some activists have assailed it as educationally destructive
and the latest in a string of California ballot initiatives tinged with
racism. Latino activists had urged the White House to weigh in on the statewide
"We welcome the White House coming out
against Proposition 227," said Ambrosio Rodriguez, an attorney in
Washington for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
These activists, however, oppose arbitrary
limits, such as the three-year period under consideration by the White
House, on participation in bilingual programs by individual students. "We
know that bilingual education works best without a time limit," Rodriguez
Advocates of the ballot measure, whose author
is conservative entrepreneur Ron K. Unz, disapproved of the administration's
new stance and are not appeased by White House consideration of a three-year
goal for participation in bilingual programs.
"I think President Clinton has become
the most misinformed citizen in the United States," said Fernando
Vega, a former school board member in Redwood City and a regional honorary
chairman of the movement for Proposition 227. "We are losing generations
and generations of Latino kids to this program called bilingual education."
Clinton, he maintained, "is listening
to groups that have an interest in the funding of bilingual education--money
that is badly spent."
The administration finds itself caught in
the cross-fire. White House officials have had difficulty crafting a politically
acceptable retort to Proposition 227 without appearing to endorse the wide
variations in the quality of bilingual education programs, many of whose
students never make the transition to English-based classrooms.
An administration source explained that policymakers
sought a formula for opposing Proposition 227 without appearing to support
the status quo. "You can't defend the status quo," the source
The administration concluded that the California
proposition would impose an overly rigid time frame on students and remove
the flexibility of schools and teachers to design the most appropriate
programs for local needs.
To many, the highly charged controversy over
bilingual education is linked to deeply held opinions about the role of
schools. Those who would defend or build upon the current system cite research
that continued instruction in a person's native language, along with English,
can help in the transition to mainstream U.S. classrooms.
But the system's many critics retort that
bilingual education too often puts students in a backwater from which they
can never get to the mainstream.
The California flap is stirring a national
debate. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), for example, plans to
introduce a bill this week to eliminate the Education Department's office
of bilingual education and shift its entire $200-million budget to other
activities in the department.
"The point of the bill is that bilingual
education fails the kids it's supposed to be serving," said a spokesman
With the June 2 vote on the proposition approaching,
White House aides earlier this month presented Clinton with a nine-page
memo proposing that he formally oppose it. The internal memo also set forth
principles that officials maintain would make bilingual programs more effective.
Clinton signaled his approval of the document last week.
One conclusion shared inside the White House
is that the inadequacies of bilingual education often reflect broader problems
of public education, such as overpopulated classrooms and shortages of
adequately trained teachers. Clinton's proposals for adopting national
academic standards, hiring 100,000 teachers and providing new financial
incentives to modernize schools have encountered stiff resistance in Congress.
In their memo to the president, White House
officials contrast the rigid mandates of Proposition 227 with their own
"goal" of moving students out of bilingual education after three
On the similarly inflammatory issue of accountability,
White House officials are leaving certain details murky. But making the
schools accountable for their results is fundamental to Clinton's approach
toward improving education, and it appears that the administration is moving
toward tougher federal monitoring of bilingual programs.
The federal effort in bilingual education
is scheduled for a thorough review next year in Congress, and the recent
White House discussion begins to clarify the set of principles that will
guide the administration when the policy is formally modified next year.
"In general, what this [accountability]
has to mean is measuring student and school progress--and when there's
not adequate progress, some action has to be taken," one administration
This is not the first time Clinton has weighed
in on a California ballot issue. The president also came out against Proposition
209, the 1996 proposal to slash affirmative action. Some opponents of that
measure, which prevailed among the voters, were disappointed that Clinton
did not oppose it more forcefully.
Two years before that, Clinton also opposed
Proposition 187, which would bar illegal immigrants from getting most state
benefits. Even though it passed in 1994, legal challenges have kept most
of its provisions from being implemented.