Sacramento Bee

Tuesday, March 17, 1998

Lungren Questions Need for Bilingual Measure
By DAN SMITH, Bee Capitol Bureau

After months of delaying a decision on the question, state Attorney General Dan Lungren on Monday said a recent court decision may have rendered "irrelevant" a June ballot measure that would largely end bilingual education in California's public schools.

Lungren is the only major candidate for governor who has not taken a stand on Proposition 227.

But he said the court decision, which ended the state requirement that local school districts provide bilingual education, ultimately may prompt him to oppose the ballot measure sponsored by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz.

"If this decision is upheld, it appears to take care of the problem that I had with a mandate for bilingual education and (instead) allows local school districts to make the determination," Lungren said in an interview. "That was the one thing that had bothered me about the Unz initiative, was whether or not it created a straitjacket for local school districts. . . . I don't know why you'd need an Unz initiative."

Nonetheless, Lungren said he still has no official position on Proposition 227. He said that the measure appears to be "far too restrictive" and that he has sought information from the Unz campaign to convince him that his concerns about local control are unfounded.

"I've asked his office to give me the analysis on that, and I'm still waiting," Lungren said. "I've asked for several months on that."

But both Unz and Proposition 227 spokeswoman Sherri Annis disputed Lungren's assertion.

"He's not asked us for any such analysis," Annis said. "He's asked us to set up a meeting, and we said, 'Fine,' and that's the last we heard. There has been no meeting. . . . He's been wishy-washy on this all along. I think he's trying to avoid it."

Lungren's indecision is reminiscent of 1994, when he waited until the day before the election before announcing his support for Proposition 187. That measure, aimed at restricting state services for illegal immigrants, passed easily with vocal backing from Gov. Pete Wilson and most of Lungren's fellow Republicans.

Unz said Lungren's failure to take a position on the bilingual education measure is not surprising.

"I really would hope that the leading political figures in California would support our initiative," he said. "So far, most of them seem to be ducking it."

Lungren's three Democratic opponents in the governor's race -- Al Checchi, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis and Rep. Jane Harman -- all oppose Proposition 227.

"He's obviously unwilling to make a decision," said Darry Sragow, political consultant for Checchi, "because the Republican Party is acutely aware that it is in very serious trouble with Latino voters."

But Lungren, noting that famed teacher Jaime Escalante is honorary chairman of the campaign in support of the Unz measure, said the initiative is not being perceived as anti-Latino. "Even though there have been some that have suggested this would be divisive, it has not proven to be thus far in this debate," he said.

The latest statewide survey by independent pollster Mervin Field showed strong support for the measure. But Latino opinion was split, with 46 percent in favor and 45 percent opposed.

Unz disputed Lungren's assertion that the court decision renders the initiative irrelevant. Even if they are freed from the state mandate to offer bilingual education programs, many of the larger school districts will continue to do so unless the initiative is approved, Unz said.

"It isn't really clear what would change," he said.

Proposition 227 would essentially end bilingual education in most districts, allowing it only in narrow circumstances.

The state's 1976 bilingual education act required primary language instruction for non-English speakers, but that law expired in 1986. State officials, however, continued to force districts to provide native language instruction, saying it was one of the "general purposes" of the law.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Ronald B. Robie last month ruled that the general purpose of the act was to "effectively and efficiently as possible develop in each child fluency in English," and that primary-language instruction was not required.