New York Times
Tuesday, April 28, 1998
White House to Fight California Initiative to Ban Bilingual
By STEVEN A. HOLMES
WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration announced its opposition Monday
to a California ballot initiative that would end bilingual education in
that state, saying that the president and other officials would actively
campaign against it.
Administration officials said that there was a "very high likelihood"
that the Justice Department would sue the state if the initiative was approved,
because it would violate the civil rights of students whose English is
The referendum, known as Proposition 227 or the Unz Initiative after
its author, Ron K. Unz, a Silicon Valley millionaire, would require that
students with weak English skills complete a one-year English immersion
course and then be placed in regular classes.
California's current programs for such students include English As a
Second Language, in which the instructor primarily speaks English to the
students, and bilingual education, in which students take classes taught
in their native tongue until their English improves. The initiative, which
faces a vote in the June 2 primary, would end both methods.
"Proposition 227 would stifle the ability of our non-English people
children to learn," said Mike Smith, acting undersecretary of education
said at a news conference here.
The administration is jumping into California's latest ballot fight
on an initiative that polls show has strong support among residents, including
Hispanics, whose children make up nearly 80 percent of students in classes
for those with limited English.
But the administration promised vigorously opposition. "We understand
the public sentiment in California and one can easily say we are flying
in the face of whatever the conventional wisdom is in California,"
said Michael D. McCurry, the White House press secretary.
Monday's announcement represents the culmination of months of study
and debate within the administration. "I believe you'll see a lot
of Administration officials in the state in the next month or so,"
campaigning against the measure, Smith said. Asked if that included the
president, he said, "I believe so."
McCurry said the administration opposed the Unz initiative because its
passage would make it more difficult to defeat bills in Congress aimed
at ending federal support of bilingual programs. He said the measure would
also jeopardize Clinton's budget proposals to hire more teachers proficient
in foreign languages.
Critics of bilingual programs say that they do not keep students from
falling behind in math or social studies, but rather hinder their mastery
"I think a major constituency of the Democratic party -- all of
the major Latino organizations -- have been fairly skeptical or in outright
opposition to the Unz initiative, although Latinos themselves have become
increasingly wary of bilingual education," said Linda Chavez, a former
Reagan administration official who opposes bilingual education.
Still, acknowledging the criticism of bilingual education, federal education
officials also announced a three-year goal for school districts to improve
students' language skills and move them into classes taught in English.
Previously the goal was three to five years.
"This is a serious goal," said Delia Pompa, head of the Department
of Education's office of bilingual education and minority language affairs.
"We want school districts moving their children towards not only to
learning English, but to achieving high standards as soon as possible."