Los Angeles Times

Tuesday, April 28, 1998

Wilson Leaning Toward Support of Unz Measure
Prop. 227: Governor says his only concern with anti-bilingual education proposal is cost. He calls Clinton's opposition 'a political gesture.'
By MAX VANZI, Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO--Gov. Pete Wilson said Monday he is inclined to support Proposition 227, the June ballot initiative that would virtually end bilingual education--and he lashed out at the Clinton administration for opposing it.
     Until now, Wilson had been silent about where he stood on the initiative sponsored by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, but that ended with his response to a question at a wide-ranging news conference.
     "I am strongly leaning that way," the governor said of Proposition 227.
     His only qualm, he said, is the estimated $50-million price tag to implement the measure.
     "Whether or not that outweighs the merits of seeing to it that children gain access to opportunities . . . by becoming fluent in English as soon as possible is a question I'll have to decide," Wilson said.
     The governor called the present practice of teaching non-English-speaking children in their own language in the early grades "one of the great misfired good intentions of our time. . . . I think it has failed."
     By contrast--and along the lines proposed by the initiative--the governor praised the "immersion" method of teaching English intensively and quickly. He used as an example the way the young state of Israel taught Hebrew to its immigrants from many countries.
     "That was a judgment [Israeli leaders] made," Wilson said. "I happen to think it was a wise one."
     Likewise, he said, when it comes to learning English, "evidently there are a number of Hispanic parents who feel the same way."
     Proposition 227 would require schoolchildren to be taught in English; those who do not speak English would enter immersion classes for a year. Exceptions could be made for children 10 and older, and for students whose parents insisted they be taught in a bilingual setting.
     Opponents of the initiative criticized the governor for moving toward supporting it.
     Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles), a staunch opponent of Proposition 227 whose wife is a bilingual teacher, said he was "chagrined but not surprised that [Wilson] is leaning toward" the ballot measure.
     The governor "has a history of supporting wedge issues, and clearly Proposition 227 is the wedge issue of 1998."
     Villaraigosa said Wilson will likely have before him soon a legislative solution to the bilingual problem--a bill sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Dede Alpert of Coronado. Under that measure, the speaker said, "there would be no need" for anyone to support the Unz initiative.
     The bill, awaiting final legislative passage in the Senate, would leave it up to local school districts to decide how best to teach English to immigrant children.
     Wilson has said before that the Legislature should send him a bill that offers reforms to the present system. But on Monday he said he has not taken a position on the Alpert measure because he has not seen the latest version.
     As for the Clinton administration's foray into California's initiative politics, the Republican governor said the Democratic president "has no business substituting his judgment for that of the people of California."
     The White House this week declared that Proposition 227's supporters are basing their arguments on poor data. The Clinton administration says changes are necessary in bilingual education but called the initiative's one-year English immersion method a "major mistake."
     Replied Wilson: "I really do not think we need the assistance of bureaucrats or elected officials from inside the Beltway to tell Californians how to vote." The governor described the White House statement as "a political gesture."
     It's up to Californians to make a decision on Proposition 227, Wilson said, "and I think they will make it very well."
     Times staff writer Dan Morain contributed to this report.