New York Times

Tuesday, April 28, 1998

White House to Fight California Initiative to Ban Bilingual Classes

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 limited.

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 of English.

"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."