Anti-Bilingual Initiative
Bilingual Education
Impact of Unz
Initiative Text
LA Times Polls
Prop. 209
Responding to Unz
Sophistry 101
USC Poll

Anti-Bilingual Initiative

Los Angeles Times Polls

Opinion poll results can vary widely depending on the way a question is posed. How policy alternatives are presented and how key words are emphasized tend to have a major influence on respondents. A question on the Unz initiative that (1) fails to mention that it would outlaw bilingual instruction and (2) stresses the importance of learning English is likely to elicit strong support, as demonstrated by a poll reported by the Los Angeles Times on October 15, 1997.

Another poll, reported just two weeks later by the Times, asked a different question and got a very different result. Meanwhile, other pollsters have been highly critical of the newspaper's surveys on the Unz measure, according to the North County Times (Oceanside).

The more voters know about the antibilingual Proposition 227, the less likely they are to support it, according to a February 1998 poll by the University of Southern California School of Education. James Crawford, Stephen Krashen, and Haeyoung Kim analyze the results in a commentary for the Hispanic Link News Service.

According to Los Angeles Times Poll of October 15, California's registered voters favored the initiative by more than 4 to 1, while Latinos were even more likely to support it than Anglos. A dramatic and counterintuitive result, with major implications for public policy. This is the kind of public opinion survey that newspapers love to report. It suggests they have their finger on the pulse of the electorate and it gets quoted widely by other media.

But in this case, how many respondents really knew the details of the initiative on which they were being polled, which have thus far received little exposure in California newspapers? Certainly they learned little about the Unz initiative from the Times Poll. Here's the question it posed:

    "There is a new initiative trying to qualify for the June primary ballot that would require all public school instruction to be conducted in English and for students not fluent in English to be placed in a short-term English immersion program. If the June 1998 primary election were being held today, would you vote for or against this measure?"

Curiously, the question itself was omitted from the Times story on the poll. To find it to determine what potential voters were responding to readers had to dig into the deepest recesses of the newspaper's web site. Did the Times have second thoughts about the clarity or fairness of its question? Certainly, it failed to inform repondents about the following provisions of the Unz initiative, any one of which could provoke opposition:

  • a ban on bilingual instruction for the vast majority of limited-English-proficient (LEP) students in California public schools;
  • no accountability for schools, no standards for teachers, and no follow-up of students placed in experimental "sheltered English immersion" classrooms;
  • limited parental choice "waivers" of the English-only policy might be granted for older and "special needs" students, but there would be no guarantees;
  • restricted access to foreign-language instruction for all students, LEP or otherwise;
  • threats of lawsuits and monetary damages against teachers and other school personnel if a language other than English is used in the classroom;
  • no flexibility for local educators and school boards to make their own decisions in teaching LEP students; and
  • a 2/3 "super-majority" rule for legislative amendment which would make an Unz law virtually immune to change or repeal.

When an email correspondent raised some of these points with Ray Enslow, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Times poll, here's what he said:

    "Thank you for your comments on our recent California survey. It is certainly true that had we asked a different question about bilingual education we might have gotten different results. The question we asked was an attempt to gauge response to a possible ballot initiative that has not yet been written. No doubt we will be polling on this issue again between now and the election; perhaps a future question will provide the information you are interested in [emphasis added]."

It was then pointed out to Mr. Enslow that the initiative has not only been written, but reportedly has been endorsed by enough registered voters to appear on the June 2 ballot. He explained:

    "I misspoke. ... I appreciate your point of view, but it seems to me that our survey question fairly described the essential point of the initiative."

And journalists wonder why readers often find them arrogant in exercising the powers entrusted to them by the First Amendment.

The Times Poll does not merely "gauge" public opinion; it helps to shape it. Its dramatic findings (summarized below) have been cited widely by politicians, pundits, reporters, editorial writers, and of course by Unz proponents to argue that "even Latinos" oppose bilingual education. Many are suggesting that the issue has already been decided, more than seven months before election day indeed, before opponents have launched a campaign to present their case. If voters believe the Times Poll, why should they pay any attention to the other side of the issue? Unfortunately, they remain largely uninformed about what the ballot measure actually says.

Los Angeles Times Poll reported on October 15.

For Unz 80 73 80 89 80 84
Against Unz 18 23 17 10 18 16
Don't know 2 4 3 1 2 --

    Source: Los Angeles Times poll of 1,396 adults statewide, including 1,092 registered voters, conducted by telephone, Oct. 4-7, 1997; sampling error of + or - 3%.

But wait a minute here's a second opinion.

On November 2, the Times published a poll of Ventura and Los Angeles County residents that showed considerably stronger support for bilingual education. The story, which highlighted the persistence of anti-immigrant feeling in conservative Ventura, nevertheless found views evenly split on bilingual education (the 2% difference was within the survey's margin of error). It noted even stronger support among Latinos and among Los Angeles County residents.

How can we account for the difference between the two polls? Characteristicallly, the Times story did not address this issue that might cast some doubt on its procedures. But it doesn't take a Ph.D. to see the role of the pollster's question. This time the survey simply asked:

    "Do you favor or oppose bilingual education in your public school?"

Here are the responses:

    Los Angeles Times Poll reported on November 2.

    Favor Bilingual Ed Oppose Bilingual Ed Don't Know
    Ventura 47% 49% 4%
         Latinos 57% NG* NG*
         Whites 19% NG* NG*
    Los Angeles 60% 37% 3%

      *Not given.

      Source: Los Angeles Times poll of 1,286 adults in Ventura County conducted by telephone Sept. 20-Sept. 23 (no information was provided on when the Los Angeles survey was conducted); sampling error of + or - 3%.

How does the Times reconcile these differing poll results?

In a November 23 story, reporter Fred Alvarez writes:

    According to a Los Angeles Times Poll, 80% of California voters--including 84% of Latinos--support the initiative.
         However, a separate Times Poll of Ventura County residents found quite a different perception of the program. Only 49% of poll respondents opposed bilingual education in local schools, including 28% of Latinos.
         Times Poll Director Susan Pincus said the difference in response is attributable to the way the question was asked.
         Statewide, the poll question mirrored the language of the initiative, asking whether respondents would support an initiative that would require all public school instruction to be conducted in English. The Ventura County poll was more specific, mentioning bilingual education by name and asking respondents whether they favor that program in public schools.
         Bilingual education advocates believe the statewide results are an inaccurate reflection of attitudes surrounding this issue.
         And they are emboldened by results of the local poll, saying they believe that as the initiative is more thoroughly explained, voters will be less likely to support it.

At least somebody on the Times is getting the message. Too bad this article was confined to the paper's Ventura County edition.

Yet another Times Poll of Orange County residents, conducted in June 1997 asked another poorly phrased question about bilingual education and yielded yet another verdict, as analyzed in a letter to the editor by Stephen Krashen.

If the Times keeps trying, maybe some day it will come up with a fair and accurate survey of voter sentiment on this issue.

Copyright © 1997 by James Crawford. Permission is hereby granted to reproduce this page for free, noncommercial distribution, provided that credit is given and this notice is included. Requests for permission to reproduce in any other form should be emailed to But before writing, please read my permissions FAQ.