San Jose Mercury News

Friday, June 5, 1998

Lessons of 227

It was a stunning victory: 61 percent yes, 39 percent no. Proposition 227 won in every county in California but San Francisco and Alameda. The day-after headlines, in California and around the nation, have discarded all the subtleties debated during the campaign and have stamped the results with one simple message: ``Californians vote to end bilingual education.'' What happened, why, what lessons are there to be learned and what should we do next?

The outcome of Proposition 227 was not decided Tuesday, it was decided more than a year ago when bilingual education's chief advocates took a no-compromise stand on the issue in the Legislature. It was a mistake and easy to see why it happened. In the wake of Proposition 187 and Proposition 209 (immigration and affirmative action), all issues with a racial slant have become so politically charged that bilingual education was turned into a civil rights issue instead of an educational issue.

The problem is that bilingual education was in fact a legitimate educational issue as well. Anyone who wasn't hearing complaints from Latino parents wasn't listening. The challenge for bilingual education's champions was to devise a strategy to address its weaknesses, protect its successes and steal the wind out of the anti-bilingual education movement's sails. Instead they convinced Latino lawmakers to keep reform stalled in the Assembly.

Bilingual's advocates aren't the first ones to make this strategic mistake. In 1978, the political wind was about providing property tax relief. When state lawmakers failed over and over again to give voters what they wanted, with a reasonable tax relief program, the issue was captured by Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann and Proposition 13.

The result (approved by almost the same margin as 227 exactly 20 years ago this week) was homeowner tax relief. In 1988, the insurance industry also made the same mistake, bottling up insurance reform in the Legislature for so long that they got stuck with Ralph Nader-backed Proposition 103.

What's the lesson? If you've taken responsibility to lead on an issue where there are legitimate beefs, don't pretend those beefs aren't there. Deal with them before someone else comes along -- like Ron Unz -- and deals with them for you in a destructive way.

A second lesson to be learned from the Proposition 227 campaign is about message. Like all effective initiative campaigners, Unz crafted a strong story line. It went like this:

Bilingual education is an experiment of the 1960s that was tried and has failed; 95 percent of all English learners in California fail every year to learn English; parents feel so trapped by the ``bilingual bureaucracy'' that in one Los Angeles school they had to carry picket signs to get the school to teach their children English.

I heard Unz deliver the tale calmly and robotically over and over again. No matter that it was at least half fiction. It was a story that sold well to both the media and the public.

In response, the NO on 227 campaign crafted messages, largely driven by polling and focus groups, that were too general, too laced with education jargon and so often focused on tangential issues that it strained credibility.

The first official campaign theme was about a provision in the initiative that allows teachers to be sued. Later a new theme would be selected, focusing on 227's appropriation of $50 million per year for adult literacy programs, dubbed ``the $500 million taxpayer giveaway.'' While these messages may have worked in theory in the sterile simulation of a focus group, they were no match for Ron Unz's dramatic rhetoric about Latino parents with picket signs.

Even the campaign's general message, ``one-size-fits-all doesn't work,'' was too general. Voters are moved by what they can conjure up as pictures in their minds -- little old ladies taxed out of their homes (Proposition 13), immigrants streaming over the border (Proposition 187).

When NO on 227 backers tossed out terms like ``untested methods'' and ``academic achievement,'' it didn't resonate. When they warned that the initiative would spend $50 million a year on adult literacy, reporters and the public said, ``Yeah right, that's why you oppose it.''

There were other ways to persuade people. The key was to use real examples about real kids and real families (not general characterizations) to show how authentically goofy 227 really is, especially on the issue of parent choice.

When I confronted Unz in public about his ``try it you'll like it'' provision -- the one that requires parents to put their kids in an English-only classroom for the first 30 days of each school year whether they like it or not -- both Unz and his initiative just looked half-baked.

The NO on 227 campaign also made a mistake by having its messages carried almost exclusively by advocates, public relations people and educators, and rarely by actual parents with children directly affected. The professionals and their jargon played right into Unz's portrait of a self-protecting bilingual bureaucracy.

Now the campaign is over and Proposition 227 is the law. What should supporters of bilingual education do next?

The initiative is already in court, being challenged on Constitutional grounds. But bilingual education supporters shouldn't just stand aside and hope that the lawyers bail the issue out in court. Parents, educators and others who genuinely care about bilingual education should proceed based on two essential principles:

First, protect the ability of parents to select bilingual education for their children. Second, work to make bilingual education programs stronger and better so that they are worth choosing.

To protect parent choice, we need to help parents understand their rights under the law, ensure that districts honor those rights, and help parents get the information they need to make their own best decisions. To make bilingual education programs stronger we need to take seriously the criticisms leveled during the campaign.

Finally this: I spent much of Election Day on a school field trip with my daughter Elly's fifth-grade class. Thursday they graduated. These children are the bilingual education products of our public school and I've watched them closely as a classroom volunteer almost every week for six years. Most are brilliantly bilingual, much more than I am, but several others (who came to the United States in later grades) have not learned English well and are falling farther and farther behind.

Bilingual education works well for some and not for others. That was the issue we needed to deal with before Proposition 227 and it is still the issue we need to deal with.

Jim Shultz is a political science lecturer at San Francisco State University and executive director of The Democracy Center, which has a Website at