Los Angeles Times

Sunday, May 10, 1998

L.A. Latinos Join Forces to Save Bilingual Classes
Politics: Elected leaders, often at odds, are working together to defeat Proposition 227. The campaign hopes to avoid mistakes made in battles against earlier ballot measures.
By JEAN MERL, Times Staff Writer

Sometime this week, Richard G. Polanco, an influential state senator from Los Angeles, will take a break from his budget review duties in the Capitol and slip into a studio to record a message urging voters to reject Proposition 227, the measure on the June 2 ballot that would virtually end bilingual education programs in California.
     The message is in both Spanish and English, and it is almost identical to ones being recorded by several others in Los Angeles County's ascendant Latino caucuses in Sacramento and Washington.      Initially slated to run on Spanish language television stations, the messages also will be aired on English stations throughout the state--if the uphill campaign to defeat Proposition 227 can raise enough money in the final weeks before the election.
     Underfunded and behind in the polls, the anti-227 campaign is making its major stand in Los Angeles County, the state's most populous--and home to the highest numbers of immigrants. Its often-warring Latino elected leaders are working in concert on this issue--starting to raise money, making commercials and delivering stump speeches to defeat the measure.
     "I would say all the members are doing what they can on this important, complex issue," said Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D-Pico Rivera), who also was scheduled to make an anti-227 commercial.      He added that he expects to be speaking in the community about the issue during visits to his district between now and election day.
     The elected leaders are part of a tightly choreographed campaign that seeks to avoid the divisiveness and mistakes that marred the unsuccessful battles against two earlier state ballot measures widely viewed as anti-immigrant and anti-minority, Proposition 187 in 1994 and Proposition 209 two years later.
     The anti-227 campaign in various ways resembles the effort to stop Proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action initiative.
     Opponents so far lack the money for a major media blitz. They are fighting a proposal that is popular with a cross-section of voters. And they are turning to grass-roots organizers and the activist establishment to spread the word that 227 is a bad idea.
     Taking direction from the statewide campaign organization, dubbed "Citizens for an Educated America, No on 227," a local coalition of labor, education and civil rights groups has targeted 250 precincts in Los Angeles County for a get-out-the-vote drive with phone banks and precinct walks. The precinct choices were based on voting patterns on Proposition 187, which sought to cut most public services for illegal immigrants and on Proposition 209, which outlawed affirmative action programs in state hiring, contracting and university admissions.
     Added to that drive is a steady drumbeat of community forums, teach-ins, speeches and, starting this weekend, parades, candlelight vigils and rallies. Everything is carefully coordinated with the statewide campaign run by veteran Democratic consultant Richard Ross of Sacramento.
     "We are being strategic and smart and trying to maximize our resources as much as possible," said Martha Arevalo of the Los Angeles office of the California Latino Civil Rights Network, which is coordinating the grass-roots efforts here.
     "We have certainly learned from our past mistakes and experiences," Arevalo said, referring to the unsuccessful campaigns to defeat the earlier ballot measures. "This time we are unified. We are collaborative."
     Their challenge is to defeat an initiative, written and financed by Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz, that taps into widespread dissatisfaction with the public schools' method of choice for teaching the 1.4 million students who speak little or no English. Instead of instructing these students in their native tongues for up to several years until they become proficient enough in English to hold their own in regular classrooms, Proposition 227 would end most bilingual education programs. It calls for students to be given up to one school year of intensive English lessons, after which they would be transferred to English-only classrooms.

Effort to Counter Prop. 227's Support
     A Times poll taken a month ago showed that the measure had strong support among registered voters and was favored even by a slim majority of Latino voters. But campaign leaders and several outside political observers say they have seen evidence that Latino voters are turning against Proposition 227 as the campaign heats up, and they believe that the overall 65%-24% margin has narrowed since the poll was conducted.
     But the local No on 227 campaign has some important things going for it. They include help from organized labor, United Teachers-Los Angeles and other education, civic and business groups, increasing numbers of new-citizen voters who are likely to be sympathetic, a large number of local Latinos on the ballot in key election contests, and the growing influence of the region's representatives in Sacramento.
     "There is still time, and if they can get the media, they can turn it around," Los Angeles political consultant Leo Briones said of the campaign in this county, home to one-quarter of California's registered voters.
     "Certainly Los Angeles is a critical county," Briones added, noting that most of the state's newest Latino voters live here. "The higher the turnout here, the better for the forces against 227."
     Locally, several major unions have agreed to carry anti-227 messages in their mail, telephone and door-to-door battles to defeat Proposition 226, which is taking most of organized labor's political resources this spring. That initiative, also on the June 2 ballot, would require unions to get members' permission before spending dues on political campaigns. United Teachers-Los Angeles last week loaned its new headquarters to anti-227 volunteers for telephone bank training and hosted a campaign update meeting between state and local leaders.
     In addition, the union, whose members narrowly voted to oppose Proposition 227, has mounted a campaign--through talks at schools and through its 40,000-distribution newsletter--that aims to reach teachers leaning toward voting yes.
     "We're now emphasizing to those teachers who are on the fence that all of them will be affected if children who are not yet ready to learn in English are put into their classrooms," said UTLA communications director Steve Blazak.

Protesting 'One Size Fits All' Mandate
     It is one variation of a message that the No on 227 campaign is striving to get across: that the solution proposed by Unz--a wealthy white man who says he never set foot in a bilingual classroom before launching his initiative drive--is too draconian, a "one size fits all" state mandate that would strip local schools of their authority to decide what's best for their students.
     They say its one-year limit on special instruction before transfer to English-only classrooms is a prescription for failure that ultimately would hurt the schools' ability to turn out able, productive citizens.      They also argue that students of different ages should not be mixed together when learning English.
     The No on 227 campaign also zeros in on the $50 million a year the measure would appropriate for tutoring children in English.
     The proposition's proponents, calling their campaign English for the Children, say that bilingual education classes keep English-learners out of the mainstream for far too long, thus dooming them to a life as second-class citizens.
     What the campaign does not do is defend the status quo: "DO NOT get into a discussion defending bilingual education," suggests a tip sheet for anti-227 volunteers.
     And, thanks to the efforts of a well-placed local legislator, the anti-227 leaders have an alternative for those Californians fed up with the schools' progress in helping immigrant children become proficient in English.
     New Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) recently pushed through legislation aimed at taking the steam out of the Unz measure by offering an alternative that would overhaul the bilingual education system and require testing and other accountability while giving local districts and parents more flexibility.      Gov. Pete Wilson, who has said he was leaning toward supporting Proposition 227, might veto the Legislature's alternative, which he criticized for its 11th-hour passage.
     But Villaraigosa said the bill signals that legislators are recognizing the need for reform and are willing to do something about it.
     "Reasonable people can disagree about whether bilingual education is 'broken,' but the perception is that it is broken," Villaraigosa said. "The Legislature had been defending the status quo, and I think it will help us that now we have been willing to try a flexible, well thought out approach instead of the meat-ax approach" of Proposition 227.
     Another Los Angeles Democrat, Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, said the legislation, coupled with other efforts to turn voters against Proposition 227, could be crucial.      "I think it may be the bump that we need," said Cedillo, a former labor organizer who has joined Villaraigosa and Polanco in a last-ditch fund-raising drive to defeat the ballot measure.
     State Sen. Hilda Solis (D-El Monte) said she has been gratified by the high level of interest in the campaign she sees in her district, which runs from Los Angeles' Eastside into the San Gabriel Valley.
     "I see school districts, civic groups, churches coming out against [Proposition 227]. I see the Asian community coming out in strong opposition. People feel that we are under attack again, and this time it is stronger because it involves the schools. . . . People feel there is more personally at stake for them" than in either of the two previous measures, Solis said.
     A recent community meeting on the measure that she attended at Roosevelt High School on the Eastside drew more than 1,000 people. And, she added, she now is seeing even the poorest immigrants opening their wallets.
     "There isn't a lot of money available to get the [No on 227] message out," Solis said. "It helps a lot that everybody is unified."
Times staff writer Bettina Boxall contributed to this story.