New York Times

Sunday, May 3, 1998

Clinton Denounces Proposal to End Bilingual Education

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- President Clinton denounced a California ballot initiative that would virtually eliminate bilingual education, saying that it would consign countless children of immigrants to a lifetime of "intellectual purgatory."

Speaking at a Democratic fund-raising dinner late Friday evening, Clinton said the initiative, Proposition 227, set rigid and unrealistic deadlines for non-English-speaking children to learn the language. It was the first time Clinton had spoken out about the measure.

The ballot proposal, sponsored by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Ron Unz, would eliminate most of California's diffuse system of bilingual education and place all children with limited English skills into a one-year immersion program.

The debate under way in California has profound pedagogical and political implications nationwide and goes to the heart of the country's 200-year struggle over race and class, assimilation and identity.

The president said he was sympathetic to parents and teachers who are concerned that immigrants are not learning English quickly enough. He acknowledged that programs designed to be temporary have become enshrined in expensive and seemingly endless bureaucracies.

But, he said: "My problem is, I think if this initiative passes it will make it worse, not better. Because it's one thing to say, well, you're in bilingual education, you can have some instruction in your own language for a year and then you're out; it's fine to say that. But we're talking about 100 different languages now -- and children at different stages of their own development. And the transition into English from some languages takes longer than others. And some people take longer than others."

Supporters of the plan argue that children who do not speak English have been poorly served by a patchwork of bilingual programs that can last five or six years and leave many children frustrated and years behind in basic skills. And they say that generations of immigrants have learned English and have become integrated into the broader culture without losing their ethnic identity.

Unz, who has no children, could not be reached to respond to Clinton's remarks.

Administration officials agonized over how to respond to the ballot proposition, which enjoys broad popular support in California, even among Hispanic residents and non-native speakers of English. The internal debate mirrored the year of soul-searching that took place on affirmative action, which the president ultimately concluded should be "mended, not ended."

The question also has echoes of the national debate over welfare, which Clinton resolved by supporting a bill that limits welfare benefits to five years over a recipient's lifetime.

Clinton has adopted a similar policy on bilingual education, settling on a compromise that would permit three years of English training, rather than the one year called for in Proposition 227. A White House official said that the president had concluded that bilingual programs should be "reformed, not revoked."

"The answer is not to say, we'll go to one year and you're out without knowing, number one, what's going to be in that year; number two, can you provide the teachers that need to be provided; number three, is it literally intellectually possible for every child of every age, no matter what age they are when they come to this country and what their language is, to get that training," Clinton said on Friday.

On another issue, Clinton said Saturday that he was outraged by IRS abuses of taxpayers reported at congressional hearings this week, and he promised to support change at the agency.

In his weekly radio broadcast, the president said that he found intolerable the "stories of citizens harassed and humiliated by what seemed to be an unaccountable, downright tone-deaf agency." Leaping to the front of a Republican parade, he said that he had ordered Charles Rossotti, the new IRS commissioner, to swiftly end any abuses and propose significant changes.

The president has been a latecomer to the overhaul-the-IRS movement, begun last year by Republicans on Capitol Hill. After resisting a House bill to revamp the agency, he abruptly shifted course last summer when it became clear that the bill would pass with overwhelming Democratic support.

In his radio address, Clinton took credit for the Republican bill, saying that the administration had worked with House leaders "to pass sweeping, strong, bipartisan reform of the IRS, to give citizens more protection, improve service, reduce abuse."

In fact, the administration had offered a watered-down version of restructuring in hopes of defeating the broader Republican bill.