Los Angeles Times

Tuesday, May 19, 1998

Wilson Backs Ballot Measure to Ban Bilingual Education
By CARL INGRAM, Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO--Gov. Pete Wilson on Monday vetoed the Legislature's bill to provide local control of bilingual education, and endorsed a ballot initiative that would require all children in California to be taught in English.
     But the initiative's sponsor, Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz, denounced the governor's support of Proposition 227, saying that Wilson's endorsement may play into the hands of the measure's opponents.
     "It is very unfortunate that the governor has chosen to endorse our initiative," said Unz, whose proposal has a large lead in polls.
     "It would be grossly opportunistic and deceitful if our opponents seized upon Wilson's endorsement to attempt to discredit those of us involved in the campaign who have worked so hard over the past year to improve the public education of California's immigrant children."
     Unz, who opposed Wilson for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 1994, declined to amplify his comments, but suggested in a telephone interview that the governor's sometimes divisive style could become a burden to passage of Proposition 227.
     "It is one of the problems we are facing. . . . We cannot judge exactly what our opponents would do." He said he had "no indication whatsoever" that Wilson was going to endorse his plan.
     Clearly stung by Unz's rebuke, Sean Walsh, the governor's chief spokesman, shot back: "Little words from a little man, but it's a free country."
Walsh said Wilson will not actively campaign for the proposal but will be happy to discuss his opinion if asked.
     In vetoing the Legislature's bilingual bill, the governor said it would perpetuate a "serious failure" in public education.
     "In California's schools, English should not be a foreign language," Wilson said in a stinging veto message and a two-page statement endorsing Proposition 227 that aides said he crafted himself. "And yet it remains one for too many limited English proficient students because of the failure of bilingual programs."
     Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) criticized the governor for his veto, and said his endorsement of Proposition 227 would be used in the campaign to defeat the initiative.
     "What we will say is that the man who brought you Proposition 187 and 209 is now bringing you Proposition 227," said Villaraigosa, who opposes Unz's initiative.
     Proposition 187 in 1994 called for the elimination of public services to illegal immigrants. Proposition 209 in 1996 eliminated affirmative action in government programs. Both were approved by wide margins.
     "[Wilson] has a history of supporting divisive and polarizing initiatives. . . . From that vantage point, it is more of the same, Gov. Wilson at his finest," Villaraigosa told reporters.
     The measure by Sen. Dede Alpert (D-Coronado) would have given school districts greater flexibility in developing their own bilingual programs, while Proposition 227 would all but scrap bilingual education.
     Wilson said Proposition 227 is the remedy to reverse the state's bilingual education system, which he said keeps English-language learners "dependent upon their primary language for far too long, shortchanging their opportunity for the [American] Dream."
     In California, about 1.4 million schoolchildren (about 1 in 4) speak a language other than English. Of these, about 30% receive some form of bilingual education, which has drawn both praise and criticism for the past 20 years.
     Generally under Proposition 227, children learning English would be immersed in English-only classes for up to a year and then placed in mainstream classes. The program would cost about $50 million a year.
     The governor criticized Proposition 227's opponents, who he said claim that the initiative is poorly crafted and will produce a generation who cannot speak English. "To the contrary, studies have shown that English immersion is the quickest and easiest way for children to learn a second language."
     The Legislature's bilingual education bill, approved May 5 as an alternative to Unz's plan, would have rejected what critics call the "one size fits all" restrictions of Proposition 227.
     The bill (SB 6), a similar version of which Alpert has been sponsoring for four years, was aimed at giving school districts new flexibility to design and operate bilingual programs tailored to local needs.
     In addition, students would be required to achieve scholastically in core subjects such as math and social studies. Students could receive instruction in their native tongue exclusively, or be immersed in English, or receive some combination of both.
     Alpert called the governor's veto "simply shortsighted." She charged that Wilson had refused to be a "constructive participant" in developing the legislation and then "cavalierly" dismissed it.
     Wilson lashed out generally at bilingual education and specifically at Alpert's bill.
     The governor charged that the bill was written in such a way that a student of "limited English proficiency" could continue to be taught in his or her "primary language for years after the child has learned English."
     Alpert said she had offered separate legislation that would meet Wilson's objections. Instead, she said, he sent her proposed amendments last week that would "gut nearly the whole bill."
     Last year, Alpert's bilingual reform bill was advancing through the Legislature but got snagged in the Assembly when then-Speaker Cruz Bustamante and other influential Latinos lined up against it.
     Last month, the blockade gave way reluctantly when Latino legislators and others agreed that the Alpert bill was superior to Proposition 227. But even then, the governor noted that it was "too little, too late."
     California has not had a state bilingual education program since 1986, when the law lapsed and was not renewed by the Legislature because of controversy over the issue. Funding, however, continued.
     In March, in response to a Superior Court decision, the State Board of Education took itself out of the business of regulating whether schools could scrap primary language instruction in favor of English-intensive methods.
     Statewide bilingual education is a patchwork of programs that vary from district to district.