June 5, 1998

Voters Say No To Bilingual Education, Others Vow To Keep Fighting

By Michelle Locke

LOS ANGELES - The battle over a ballot proposition ending bilingual education in California switched from the voting booth to the courtroom today as Hispanic civil rights groups filed suit claiming the just-approved measure is unconstitutional.

The suit was filed in San Francisco on behalf of seven students from around the state who speak limited English and are enrolled in programs that would be affected by Proposition 227. The plaintiffs also include several civil rights groups.

``Parents, including immigrant parents, should have the right to make basic choices about their children's education,'' said Deborah Escobedo, a lawyer with Multicultural Education, Training and Advocacy. ``All children, including immigrant children, should have the right to learn academic English and have access to science, math and history. Proposition 227 takes away these basic rights.''

``Proposition 227 will prove to be the most devastating piece of legislation for language-minority students in the history of public education in this state,'' Genethia Hayes, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Los Angeles, told a Southern California news conference.

Voters closed the books on 30 years of bilingual education Tuesday, overwhelmingly supporting Proposition 227, the measure requiring that all children be taught in English.

With 99 percent of precincts reporting, the measure had 3,253,268 votes in favor, or 61 percent, compared with 2,091,436 votes against, or 39 percent.

``We won a tremendous victory against overwhelming obstacles,'' said an elated Ron Unz, the software millionaire who backed Proposition 227. ``The California immigrant population has also won a victory.''

The morning-after courthouse dash has become a trend in California initiative politics.

Legal challenges were filed to the 1994 measure cutting state services to illegal immigrants (still tied up in court) and to the 1996 measure dismantling affirmative action (upheld and beginning to be implemented).

Unz wasn't worried about a court battle, declaring the measure ``ironclad constitutional.''

The initiative was expected to be closely watched elsewhere in the nation as California's latest foray into populist politics.

``By passing this in California, we've already had a national impact. Half of all the bilingual programs in the country are in California,'' Unz said. ``I think many of the other programs now (are) under a severe threat.''

Proposition 227 essentially does away with California's bilingual education by ordaining that all children must be taught in English. Students who have limited-English will be put in an English immersion program for no more than one year.

Unz began crusading against bilingual education after reading about Hispanic parents who were boycotting Los Angeles schools for insisting on teaching their children in Spanish.

He maintained that the experiences of earlier generations show children can pick up English quickly. The current system condemns children to a linguistic limbo where they fall behind their English-schooled peers, he said.

Opponents admitted there were problems with bilingual education, but they said a sink-or-swim solution would push a vulnerable population into dangerous waters.

Exit polling by CNN and the Los Angeles Times showed that of those voting against the measure, only 12 percent said they did so because they believed bilingual education worked.

More than 50 languages are spoken on California school yards and the state offers instruction in 20 of them. Eighty percent of limited-English children are Spanish speakers, turning the debate into a largely Latino issue.

In California, about 1.4 million of the state's 5 million public school students have limited English proficiency, state studies show. Of those, about 30 percent are in programs where they receive most of their instruction in their primary language. Due to a teacher shortage, the rest may get anything from no help at all to courses designed for limited-English speakers, or having a teacher's aide in the classroom to translate as needed.

Last year, the state reported that just under 7 percent of children in bilingual education were reclassified as speaking English.

As the proposition soared in the polls, legislators broke a gridlock and passed a bill that would have allowed districts to tailor their own programs provided they produced results within three years. Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed the bill as too little, too late.

Wilson endorsed Proposition 227 as did the State Republican Party, against the objections of party leaders; and Jaime Escalante, the former East Los Angeles school teacher whose innovative methods were the subject of the movie ``Stand and Deliver.''

Opponents included the California Teachers Association, President Bill Clinton, and all four candidates for governor.

State schools chief Delaine Eastin, who opposed the measure, said Tuesday she would work with districts to help them comply with the new law.

But bilingual education teacher Marina Salas planned to resist.

``I'm going to stand by our curriculum. I've seen it work. I know it works,'' she said. ``I am prepared to lose my job over this.''