San Francisco Chronicle
Tuesday, March 17, 1998
Clinton's Silence Alarms State's Bilingual Ed Backers
Bilingual education has few more enthusiastic supporters than President Clinton.
Yet despite months of intensive lobbying from bilingual advocates, he has yet to publicly oppose the controversial California initiative that would dismantle bilingual education programs across the state.
His silence reflects an intense debate within the White House on how best to respond to the initiative, which polls suggest is headed for victory on the June ballot.
The latest Field Poll shows that nearly two-thirds of likely voters support the measure. Advocates believe that approval of the measure would represent a major setback for the entire concept of bilingual education -- not only in California but across the nation.
White House Strategy
``It's not enough to say you're against the initiative,'' said an aide who requested anonymity. ``You also have to say what you're for.''
California Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa said he spoke recently to senior White House officials and that the administration is opposed to the initiative. ``The president's view (on bilingual education) is similar to mine -- mend it, don't end it.''
But with the election less than three months away, Latino leaders are increasingly concerned that Clinton's response to the initiative will either be too late or too tepid -- a repeat of Clinton's low-key opposition in 1996 to Proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action measure.
``If the administration wants to make a mark on improving educational outcomes on our children, it needs to take a stand on this one,'' said Arturo Vargas, chairman of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, which represents 40 Latino organizations nationwide and recently condemned the initiative.
Certainly the White House is taking the issue seriously. It has been the subject of several high- level meetings both at the White House and in California, involving Vice President Al Gore and some of the president's senior aides. The administration even invited Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley executive who authored the initiative, to the Old Executive Office Building to discuss the implications of the measure.
But White House attempts to develop a response are complicated by several matters.
If the measure is going to pass regardless of Clinton's involvement, then it makes little sense for him to become too identified with the campaign to defeat it.
Democrats are hesitant to do anything that will cut into their current high standing with Latino voters in California. These voters are particularly crucial for Gore as he prepares for a run for the White House in 2000.
Finally, the voluminous research on bilingual education is far from conclusive.
The research shows that with well-trained teachers, enough staff and other resources, bilingual education can be effective. But in their absence, as is often the case, children languish in bilingual classes far longer than they should.
At a private meeting of a dozen civil rights leaders at the White House in December, Clinton discussed the administration's strategy on the initiative at length, providing unusually detailed insight into his thinking.
The president acknowledged the widespread view that bilingual education programs are ineffective. ``There is a broad perception that bilingual services have become institutionalized in a way that carry kids with them longer than they should be and make them too dependent on it,'' he said, according to a transcript of the meeting.
`A Wedge Issue'
To that end, he said he wanted to study bilingual education and help educate voters.
``Very often they are deprived of what the facts are on the issues they're debating, so all they can do is go on what they think their basic values and their basic instincts are,'' he said.
Clinton said it is ``deeply troubling'' that polls show many Latino voters in favor of the measure. One explanation, he said, is that they do not fully understand the initiative. Another is Latino parents ``are concerned about whether their children stay in programs for too long, or whether the programs are sufficiently effective to let them learn everything else as well as they need to learn.''
Nonetheless, he said he did not want to jump into the fight over bilingual education too quickly. ``What we need to do is analyze the facts (about the initiative) and find out what they are, and then try to work back from that instead of immediately joining the issue -- but do it quickly enough so that the people of California have some chance of having an honest debate.''
That was back in January. Next week, Clinton leaves for a 10-day trip to Africa, and no announcement on the initiative -- if he makes one at all -- is expected before he returns April 2, at the earliest.
Opponents are hoping that a president who normally seizes every opportunity to back bilingual education will not delay much longer in coming out against the measure.
``We're anxiously awaiting a statement and a position from the White House,'' said Charles Kamasaki, senior vice president of the National Council on La Raza.
However, Unz, the initiative's author, predicts that Clinton will not say anything at all. ``I think he'll stay out of the whole thing,'' Unz said. ``The polls are so strong now, I don't think he'll want to go against them.''
The bilingual education initiative on the June ballot would:
-- Replace current bilingual education programs, including academics, with intense English language instruction for one year for students who need it.
-- Offer bilingual instruction only if 20 parents of children in the same grade in the same school receive a waiver each year.
-- Take $50 million in state money to pay for English lessons for adult immigrants.
-- Allow parents to sue educators who do not offer the English-only classes.