San Jose Mercury News

Wednesday, June 3, 1998

State's Voters Speak Strongly against Teaching in 2 Languages
By MICHAEL BAZELEY, Mercury News Staff Writer

Voters called for an end to bilingual education in public schools Tuesday, overwhelmingly supporting a measure that makes California the first state to require all students be educated in English.

In a vote being watched across the country, Proposition 227 held a strong lead from the beginning. It passed in nearly every county with the exception of San Francisco and Alameda.

``The people of California supported us because they supported the idea of teaching children in English,'' said Ron Unz, the Palo Alto software developer who wrote and funded the initiative. ``I expect the overwhelming number of school districts will be implementing this and teaching their kids in English come this fall.'' Opponents blamed their loss on a ``huge misinformation campaign'' by Unz.

``He made some very negative statements about the Latino community, and about teachers and bilingual education that were not true,' said Holli Thier, spokeswoman for Citizens for an Educated America. ``Ron Unz painted a (negative) picture very early on, before there was even organized opposition, and we spent the rest of the time having to respond to that.''

Unz had predicted that the anti-bilingual sentiment would sweep across the country, but the immediate effect of Prop. 227's victory was not clear. The initiative is supposed to take effect 60 days after it passes. But opponents were expected to announce a legal challenge in San Francisco today, which Unz vowed to fight.

``Tonight does not signify the end of our campaign,'' said Renee Saucedo, director of the Northern California Coalition for Immigrant Rights. ``We are going to continue to organize parents and teachers to make sure this initiative is never implemented.''

At least two school districts -- including the San Mateo-Foster City School District -- have already said they would ask the state Board of Education for waivers from the initiative. And several districts have vowed to defy the measure's English-only mandate.

Bilingual education has been employed in California schools for more than 25 years. It was designed to help ease non-English-speaking children into regular classrooms by teaching them in both their native language and English.

But the teaching method has come under increased attacks in recent years, partly because of a persistently high Latino dropout rate and a sense that many students are not learning English quickly enough.

Unz, a 36-year-old millionaire businessman, repeatedly characterized bilingual education as a ``dismal failure.''

As they left the polls Tuesday, many voters appeared to agree.

``I don't know if they're not learning English in the schools, but it's sure not happening in the community,'' said software engineer Rich Edelman, 38, as he walked out of a San Jose polling place. ``There are a lot of people running around here who do not speak English. This will force them to learn English, and that's a good thing.''

Unz's initiative would place all students with limited English skills in a year-long intensive English class and then move them into regular classrooms. Parents who still want their children in bilingual classes could apply for waivers in some circumstances.

About 30 percent of the 1.4 million students not fluent in English are now in bilingual classes, where most instruction is in their native languages. The remaining students are taught primarily in English.

Unz's campaign had just a handful of formal endorsements, including Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and famed math teacher Jaime Escalante.

By contrast, virtually every major education group opposed the measure, along with dozens of school boards, two dozen state and federal politicians, the chairman of the California Republican Party, President Clinton and all four candidates for governor.

Unz was also outspent nearly 3-to-1 by the opposition, which pulled in more than $2 million in the final two months of the campaign.

None of that seemed to matter much, though, when it came to public opinion. The notion of English-only classrooms appealed strongly to California voters, many of whom are frustrated with public schools and an ever-growing immigrant population.

Like Proposition 63, the 1986 measure that made English the state's official language, Proposition 227 staked a strong early lead in public opinion polls that it never relinquished. In the months leading up to the election, the question was not whether Proposition 227 would win, but by how much.

The momentum toward English-only classrooms has been building for more than a decade.

The state law mandating instruction in a student's native language expired in 1987, after a bill that would have extended it was vetoed by then-Gov. George Deukmejian. State education officials continued to require schools to offer bilingual education.

But many districts -- faced with a shortage of qualified teachers and questions about the effectiveness of bilingual classes -- sought waivers from the regulations so they could teach in English.

The Orange School District finally challenged the legality of the bilingual requirements last year. And this March, the state Board of Education rescinded its bilingual policy.