Bilingual Education and Proposition 227: What
The proposition, also known as the "Unz Initiative," was the brainchild of Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz, who bankrolled most of the campaign. The conservative Republican has acknowledged never having been in a bilingual classroom before embarking on his one-man crusade.
Proposition 227, which is facing court challenges, would:
Unz, who the New York Times has described as an ideologue, argues that bilingual education is ineffective, claiming the teaching method prevents students from learning English and has a 95 percent failure rate. He also blames bilingual education for poor academic performance among immigrant children. To preempt charges of racial bias, Unz recruited high-profile Latinos, including Jaime Escalante, the inspiring teacher played by Edward J. Olmos in the movie "Stand and Deliver." He also reminded voters that in 1994, he opposed Proposition 187, which sought to deny public education and other state services to undocumented immigrants.
The approach for teaching English that Unz sold is known as "immersion," or more colloquially, "sink or swim."
Opponents think many students will sink. Here are some of their arguments:
Judging by the almost unanimous opposition to Proposition 227 by educational organizations, teachers unions, linguists and political leaders, opponents of the Unz initiative won the debate in the public policy and scientific realms. But that hardly mattered in the final result. Ultimately the vote on Proposition 227 reflected less the debate over whether a teaching method is effective than the attitudes of different groups throughout the United States toward language.
Ever since the first such referendum took place in Dade County (Greater Miami), Fla., in 1980, many anti-bilingual and "pro-English" referenda have been held at the state and local level. All have all been successful, regardless of where they were held or whether the issue was bilingualism in government or schooling.
What is going on here?
Moreover, negative feelings toward bilingualism are hard to change through reasoned arguments because "hostility to bilingualism is primarily symbolic in nature...even if our respondents were persuaded that bilingual programs worked effectively, they would still be likely to oppose them," Wolfe states.
In a poll taken by the Los Angeles Times before the vote, only 10 percent of those in favor of Proposition 227 said they would vote for it because of the stated purpose of the initiative, the belief bilingual education is ineffective. In contrast, 57 percent of them said they favored the proposition because "if you live in America, you need to speak English."
Perhaps the suspicion that Proposition 227 was intended to send a message explains the one real surprise of the referendum: the Latino vote.
Early polls showed that as many as 80 percent of California's Latinos favored Proposition 227, and initiative supporters boasted about overwhelming Hispanic support. But when it came to casting their ballots, Latinos opposed the measure by almost a two-to-one margin, 63 percent to 37 percent.
Haydee Rodríguez, a recent graduate of San Diego State University-Imperial Valley Campus, apparently speaks for many Latinos who changed their mind. "At first I was undecided about Proposition 227. I have seen some of the failures of bilingual education. But in the end, I didn't want it to pass because I didn't think it would fix anything. And I thought it was unfair and distrusted the motives behind it, which smacked of racism. It was the wrong thing for the wrong reason." After being on the fence, Rodríguez eventually worked to rally public opposition to Proposition 227.
The media's take regarding the apparent turn in the Latino vote has focused on late appeals by Spanish-language media and Latino politicians. That instant analysis ignores a more fundamental fact. On the question of language, there is one group in the United States that deviates radically from the views of most middle-class Americans as described by Wolfe. Latinos are that group. Far from abhorring bilingualism, the evidence is that most Hispanics regard bilingualism positively, as a value for individuals, for the community, and for the nation. Once again the evidence from the numerous referenda is consistent and compelling. Time and again Latinos have rejected "English only" and anti-bilingual measures as resoundingly as the general electorate has endorsed them.
Indeed, there has been a consistent voting pattern across the country on issues similar to Proposition 227 for almost two decades. Non-Hispanic white voters favor anti-bilingual measures by a huge majority. Latino voters oppose such measures by about the same margin, and African Americans and Asians fall in-between. Putting this picture together, it is clear that the center of gravity of support for ending bilingual education is among non-Hispanic whites. California's two largest minorities, African Americans and Latinos, opposed the measure, while the third, Asians, gave it lukewarm support. Because Latinos made up only 12 percent of the electorate in June (compared to 29.4 percent of California's population), their strong opposition to Proposition 227 could not counter massive non-Hispanic white support.
At odds on language
The controversy over Proposition 227 seems to confirm that language is the most divisive issue pitting Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites in the United States at the turn of the 21st century. Raw voting power has meant that so far non-Hispanic white preferences have prevailed almost completely when the issue has come down to a popular vote. But as Latinos acquire more power, a measure of balance is likely to be restored. Some anti-bilingual measures might even be repealed. This has already happened in Miami, where a 1980 anti-bilingual measure was repealed about five years ago.
If Proposition 187 in 1994, and the flurry of anti-immigrant laws passed in 1996 were not enough, the victory of Proposition 227 in California in 1998 should convince Latino holdouts that the price of political non-involvement is the continued success of policies that injure our pride and our pocketbooks.
The vote for Proposition 227
left a trail of unanswered questions. We tackle some of them here.
Q. What happens now?
Q. What happens if Proposition 227 is implemented?
Q. Does this mean the beginning of the
end of bilingual education in the United States?
Q. How do Latinos feel about passage of
a proposition that affects most of their children and that almost two-thirds
of the community opposed?
Max J. Castro is a senior research associate at the North-South Center, University of Miami, Fla.