Vista Magazine

August 1998

Bilingual Education and Proposition 227: What Really Happened?

No one should have been surprised when in June, 61 percent of Californians voted to end bilingual education. It is not just that every poll in the state had shown a huge lead for Proposition 227. It also is the fact that no item against bilingualism has ever been defeated in the United States.

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:

  • Replace the wide variety of bilingual education programs in existence in California with a uniform approach across the state.
  • Require that children with "limited English proficiency" (LEP) be limited to one year in a "sheltered English" classroom after which they would be placed in regular classrooms.

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:

  • There is no evidence a one-year immersion approach will work; experience suggests one year is not enough time for students to become English proficient.
  • Supporters rely on anecdotal evidence, popular misconceptions and misleading claims.
  • Using Unz's own yardstick, the existing immersion programs have a failure rate higher than the 95 percent claimed for bilingual education.
  • There is a large body of theory and research that shows bilingual education works very well when implemented competently. Many programs across the country have produced excellent results.
  • Recent studies find immigrant children doing better in school than native children.
  • It is absurd to blame bilingual education for the educational problems of the state's 1.4 million LEP students when only 30 percent of them are in bilingual programs.

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?
Boston University sociologist Alan Wolfe's just-published study, "One Nation, After All," suggests a simple explanation: bilingualism is anathema to the overwhelming majority of middle-class Americans. In his sample of suburbanites in four states, the percentage of those opposing bilingualism was four times greater than that of those in support. In fact, among middle-class Americans interviewed by Wolfe, only homosexuality was less tolerated than bilingualism: "Middle-class Americans, it would seem, think about other languages the same way they think about homosexuality-and not the way they think about minority religions. Our respondents were strongly against bilingualism."

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 voting record and polling data suggest that when it comes to language, Latinos and non-Hispanic whites in the United States are polarized, holding views that are difficult to reconcile. A market study conducted in Miami in the late 1980s pinpoints the nature of the disagreement. On the importance of children learning English, there is no argument: concern was almost identical and close to 100 percent among both groups, with Hispanics actually exceeding non-Hispanic whites slightly. But on the value of children learning Spanish, almost all Latinos said that was important too, while about two-thirds of non-Hispanic white parents did not.

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.

What specific factors contributed to the victory of Proposition 227?
A. Beyond those already described, James Crawford, author of Bilingual Education: History, Politics, Theory and Practice, and an active opponent of the Unz Initiative, gives five reasons:

  • Unz had a clever strategy to counter charges of racism, and a seductive message: "English for the Children;"
  • The media showed blatant bias by framing the story from the start as the "failure of bilingual education" by accepting Unz's misleading claims at face value and by failing to scrutinize them adequately;
  • Political leaders, including Latinos, weighed in too little and too late;
  • Public cynicism about education combined with popular misconceptions made bilingual education a perfect scapegoat for all the problems of the schools; and
  • The anti-Proposition 227 campaign made the mistake of relying too much on a media blitz and not enough on mobilizing the grass roots.

Q. What happens now?
A. A coalition of advocacy groups will fight the measure in the courts, arguing that it violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution and civil rights law by preventing LEP students from receiving an effective education. Many local school systems are also likely to take advantage of a clause that allows them to seek waivers, said Emily Palacio, assistant superintendent in the Calexico Unified School District, which has an extensive bilingual education program. The prospects of obtaining such waivers is unclear.

Q. What happens if Proposition 227 is implemented?
A. Some experts are predicting chaos as school systems attempt to wrestle with the vague mandate of Proposition 227. Others say English speakers will be hurt when unprepared students are brought into their classrooms, causing disruption. Proposition 227 supporters say these problems are overstated and that ultimately LEP children will rapidly learn English and their overall performance will improve. But Emily Palacio, whose school district is heavily Latino, believes implementation will hurt students because "we will be unable to provide the instructional method best suited to their needs."

Q. Does this mean the beginning of the end of bilingual education in the United States?
A. That seems unlikely. School systems ranging from New Jersey in the Northeast, to Miami-Dade in the Southeast are expanding their bilingual education programs. Anti-bilingual advocates will have a hard time repeating their success in the Northeast, where the initiative process does not exist. In Miami, bilingual education is strongly backed by the business community and by conservative Cuban American Republican leaders, making it a difficult target for anti-bilingual forces.

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?
A. Emily Palacio described the outcome as "devastating if not unexpected." Haydee Rodríguez said the result was "hurtful" and described herself as "disillusioned." "It leaves you feeling deflated," Francisco Domínguez, executive director of a Latino advocacy group in Ventura County told the Los Angeles Times . But advocacy groups are fighting back in the courts, and over 1,500 teachers have vowed to practice civil disobedience by ignoring the new law.

Max J. Castro is a senior research associate at the North-South Center, University of Miami, Fla.