The Proposition 227 Campaign: A Post Mortem
By James Crawford

Californians decisively rejected bilingual education on June 2, 1998, approving a mandate for English-only instruction known as Proposition 227. The vote was so one-sided – 61 to 39 percent – that it is difficult to say what, if anything, could have altered the outcome. Since the election, two viewpoints have emerged. One is that anti-immigrant sentiment among voters made this ballot campaign, like other English-only initiatives before it, virtually unstoppable. The other is that, armed with a different strategy, bilingual education advocates might have beaten back the assault.

In this disagreement there is more at stake than a desire to apportion blame, or to deny responsibility, for a disastrous defeat. The two viewpoints reflect conflicting analyses of why Proposition 227 passed, what it represents as a political phenomenon, and how advocates for languageminority students should respond. The implications of this argument extend well beyond California. A new wave of anti-bilingual activism is spreading to other states, school districts, and the US Congress.

Few would dispute that issues of demographic change – immigration, race, ethnicity, and language – have preoccupied and polarized Californians in the 1990s. Public schools have become a special point of concern. The enrollment of limited-English-proficient (LEP) children has more than doubled over the past decade, to 1.4 million; English learners now represent one-quarter of California’s K-12 students and one-third of those entering the first grade (California Department of Education, 1998). This remarkable growth stems not only from rising immigration but also from higher birthrates in language-minority communities. Between 1990 and 1996, as the state’s population increased by 2.6 million, nine out of ten of the new Californians were Latinos or Asian Americans. These groups expanded to 29 percent and 11 percent of state residents, respectively, while African-Americans held steady at 7 percent and non-Hispanic whites slipped to 53 percent (California Department of Finance, 1998). Approaching minority status for the first time since the Gold Rush, many white Californians feel threatened by the impending shift in political power and resentful about paying taxes to benefit ‘other’ people’s children (Schrag, 1998). Still, in the June 1998 election, they accounted for 69 percent of the voters statewide, African-Americans 14 percent, Latinos 12 percent, and Asians 3 percent (Los Angeles Times–CNN Poll, 1998).

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