North County Times

November 9, 1997

Pollsters Skeptical of Anti-Bilingual Findings

Despite a recent Los Angeles Times survey that found overwhelming support for doing away with bilingual education, some pollsters are skeptical of its findings.
     The poll found 80 percent backing for Ron Unz's proposed "English for the Children" initiative, which would dismantle bilingual education. Among the poll's more surprising results -- 84 percent support of Latinos support the initiative.
     Last week's advisory vote in the conservative Orange Unified School District also gave a boost to the Unz campaign. By a landslide 86 percent to 14 percent margin, voters supported teaching students in only English and not in their native languages. The school board last year voted to dismantle bilingual classes and received a one-year waiver from the state to do so. A pending lawsuit may ultimately decide the outcome.
     Regarding the L.A. Times' survey, "I'd be very skeptical of any poll, at this point in the game, that says Latinos overwhelmingly support the initiative," said Paul Maslin, with Fairbanks, Mullin and Maslin, a national polling firm in San Francisco. "I'm reasonably confident that it's not 84 percent."
     Both sides of the argument should be presented to the public before they're asked their opinion, Maslin said.
     Paul Nienstedt, president of San Diego-based Competitive Edge, said the poll question lacked important information about the initiative.
     "The key to a survey is the question and the wording," he said. "Nowhere does it say bilingual education will be abolished."
     The Times' poll telephoned 1,396 adults throughout California, including 1,092 registered voters, Oct. 4 to 7 using random-digit dialing, while slightly weighting the sample to conform with census figures for race, sex, age, education, region and registration. The results have a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent.
     Pollsters asked a two-sentence question about the initiative: "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?"
     Susan Pinkus, director of the Times poll, said the question was one of several regarding potential initiatives. The results are early campaign "benchmarks," and if the Unz measure qualifies for the ballot, as most observers expect it will, future polls will present the issue more in depth, Pinkus said.
     Pinkus referred to early Latino support for 1994's Proposition 187, which denies many public services to illegal immigrants but is hung up in the courts. Latino backing for it began waning midway into the campaign, until more than 75 percent of Latinos voted against it, she said.
     Unz said he believes support for his initiative in the Times poll would have been even stronger if it had included more information.
     "Their wording is much more extreme than our initiative," he said in an interview. "They say nothing about a waiver parents can obtain to put their child in a bilingual classroom. If they included that, I think we would've seen instead of 84 percent, more like 94 percent."