Minority activists and education reformers are bracing for the next big, national debate on American civil rights - courtesy of a California ballot initiative.
Golden State voters barred public benefits for illegal immigrants in 1994 and ended affirmative action last year. Now, with signatures submitted for the June 1998, "English for the Children" initiative, battle lines are being drawn for what promises to be another heated war of values and rhetoric over bilingual education.
But exactly where Latinos stand on the issue is a matter of increasing debate. Despite a recent Los Angeles Times poll that found 84 percent of Hispanics are against continuing bilingual education, other surveys have indicated that this support is far from solid. And as leaders in the Latino community line up on both sides of the issue, the fight for the Hispanic vote is taking on greater urgency.
The new measure seeks to virtually eliminate bilingual programs in the state that is home to half the nation's 2.6 million public-school students who are considered "limited English proficient" (LEP). As activists in states such as Massachusetts, New York, and Florida gear up for local campaigns of their own, the California ballot brawl will generate public-policy implications from statehouses to courthouses and Congress.
"The whole country is watching California for the lessons this fight holds for how children everywhere should or shouldn't learn English," says Eric Stone, director of research at US English, a national organization dedicated to promoting English as the official language of the US.
At issue, he says, are how billions of dollars of public funds will be allocated, how such children will be taught, and how quickly - or slowly - non-English-speaking children can be assimilated into English-speaking society. Nationwide, between $6 billion and $12 billion per year is spent on 2.6 million students in bilingual education. About $4 billion to $5 billion is spent in California, where the number of LEP students has doubled in 10 years.
"The question is what learning English means for those of other language backgrounds in being able to fully participate in American society for the rest of their lives," says Mr. Stone.
The California initiative would replace several kinds of programs now offered with one year of intensive English instruction, during which academic study in other subjects would be on hold. It would require that children be taught in English unless enough parents - 20 per grade level - request bilingual education annually and in person.
Led by millionaire Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, opponents of bilingual education here have submitted 700,000 signatures, fully expecting to fulfill the 433,269 needed to qualify for the June ballot. Backed by Mr. Unz's deep pockets - he has spent $200,000 of his own money so far - the antibilingual forces have gotten off to a quick start, dominating the state and national media with their message that California's 30-year experiment with bilingual education has failed.
"Bilingual education began with the best of intentions, but it's been 30 years and they've never gotten it right," says Unz, who ran against Pete Wilson in the 1996 GOP gubernatorial primary here, garnering 30 percent of the vote. "It's time to end it," he says.
Unz says he got the idea after watching immigrant parents stage a public boycott of Ninth Street Elementary in Los Angeles after the school administration refused to allow their children to be taught English. He has enlisted the help of legendary high school teacher Jaime Escalante, whose success in teaching calculus to poor Hispanics in East Los Angeles formed the basis of the movie, "Stand and Deliver." "School prepares you for life," says Mr. Escalante. "You educate yourself to integrate into this society. You do that by learning English."
Escalante and Unz point to the Los Angeles Times October poll as evidence that the ideas have overwhelming support in California. The poll not only found that 84 percent of Hispanics support the initiative, but also that 80 percent of the overall electorate also favors the initiative.
"This is a very important symbolically that the voters of California are behind this initiative," says Linda Chavez, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity (CEO) in Washington. She says CEO did similar polls in five US cities two years ago - including Miami, Denver, and Houston - and got similar results. "Lobbyists and advocates have been driving this public-policy issue for more than 20 years and the Latino community has never been able to weigh in on this. Now we find they don't want it."
But now the initiative's opponents are beginning to organize as well and are challenging both the premises of the measure itself as well as the means of measuring public opinion about it.
"Now that Unz has filed his signatures, the media and public are going to take a far closer look at what he is doing and you will see the tide turn," says Jaime Zapata, associate director for legislation at the National Association for Bilingual Education.
Those against the initiative, which include the California Teachers Association, the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO), and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, hold that immersing LEP children in English for one year will not be enough to allow them to successfully continue school.
"These kids will fall further and further behind year after year," says Mr. Zapata. He says there is no evidence that children can become proficient in English in such a short time, he adds: "Those children in all other classes who are fully qualified in English will suffer as well."
Despite the early appearance of voter approval in some polls for the initiative, several observers warn it is too early to gauge public opinion. Another L.A. Times poll in Ventura County found Latinos slightly in favor of bilingual education.
And a November exit poll of Hispanic voters across California conducted by the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project found 57.6 percent against ending bilingual education.
Like last year's Prop. 209, in which pollsters got diametrically opposite findings depending on whether the term "affirmative action" or "racial preferences" was used, public sentiment about the bilingual issue is heavily reliant on how the issue is framed.
"The initiative writers are very careful not to use the words 'bilingual education,' says Los Angeles Times pollster Susan Pinkus. She notes that another volatile issue for Latino voters, Prop. 187 was heavily supported by Latinos, 52 percent to 42 percent two months before the vote. But 77 percent of Latinos voted against it.
"I don't believe the Latino community is of one mind about this," says Pinkus. "If the pro-bilingual forces push all the right buttons, they could easily turn this thing in their favor."