A Thoughtful Measure, but Not the Right One

<i> Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist</i>

Gov. Pete Wilson’s decision to endorse Proposition 227, the antibilingual education initiative on the June 2 primary ballot, was not particularly surprising. To those who’ve grown sadly accustomed to the governor’s divisive politics, it was not even all that disappointing.

What was unfortunate about the governor’s action was his decision to also veto a Senate bill that the Legislature had adopted as an alternative to Proposition 227’s prescription for California’s roughly 1.4 million limited-English students.

Proposition 227 is the initiative proposed by Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz that would eliminate bilingual education in California. Local school districts would be required to put all limited-English students in a one-year program of English immersion. Exceptions would be granted only to students whose parents petition for an exemption, not an easy process.


The bipartisan Senate bill, sponsored by state Sen. Dede Alpert (D-Coronado), provided a reasonable compromise whereby voters who otherwise disagree about bilingual education could find common ground. The bill gave local districts the flexibility to experiment with different methods of educating limited-English students, balancing that freedom with penalties for any district that persisted with a program that clearly was not working.

The Senate bill’s local-control provisions were enough to persuade even the leading Republican candidate to succeed Wilson, Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, to support the measure and oppose the one-size-fits-all approach.

Sadly, by not allowing a sensible compromise like the Alpert bill to become law and by adding his name to the pro-227 campaign, Wilson is giving opponents of the measure ammunition to lump it with Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigrant initiative that Wilson demagogued in 1994 to win reelection.

But Proposition 227 is not Proposition 187. In fact, some of the nativist nuts who backed Proposition 187 are opposing Unz’s initiative just as fervently because of his past advocacy on behalf of immigrants. Unz opposed Proposition 187 and wrote a provision into Proposition 227 setting aside $50 million a year in state funds to provide more English-language classes for adults who agree to tutor children in the language.

It is because of Unz’s sincerity that I thought long and hard about voting for the initiative.

After all, Proposition 227 was put on the ballot for the very reason that the initiative process was written into the state Constitution: to force a change in an untenable status quo that the governor and Legislature cannot or will not fix. That was certainly the case with bilingual education until this year.


The law mandating bilingual instruction in California lapsed in 1986, but was never renewed by the Legislature because of the difficult politics of the controversial teaching method. But bilingual education funding continued, giving many school districts a perverse incentive to keep immigrant kids in bilingual programs rather than moving them into English-language instruction.

It should be remembered that a rapid but successful transition to English was the aim of bilingual education when it was begun in the 1970s. But like other noble experiments, it was taken over--and distorted--by education bureaucrats who care more about money and numbers than individual children.

A small but vocal cadre of Latino activists support this status quo in the misguided assumption that bilingual programs promote cultural pride in Latino kids and help maintain the Spanish language in this country.

But the best way to instill pride in Latino youngsters is through academic and professional success, and that is more readily achieved in English. As to helping keep Spanish alive, the language is in no danger of fading away. There are now three Spanish-language TV stations and dozens of Spanish-language radio stations in Los Angeles. So as long as business can sell everything from alfombras to zapatos by using Spanish, it will not only persist in this country, but flourish.

As for bilingual education, the Legislature broke the political impasse when the Senate bill was finally approved. The measure should be revived next fall, after a more statesmanlike governor is elected, no matter which way voters go on 227. Thankfully, all the major candidates for governor say they prefer reforming bilingual education to Proposition 227.

That’s why I can vote against the Unz initiative with some confidence that it already has helped improve things, without writing overly rigid education rules into state law.