California voters eliminated the state's 30-year-old system of bilingual education on Tuesday, while a measure that would weaken the political clout of labor unions was defeated.
Proposition 227, the brainchild of software millionaire Ron Unz, will essentially replace the state's bilingual education program with an English immersion program after one year of transition classes. Parents can ask that their children get bilingual education but only under limited conditions.
Proposition 226 dubbed "paycheck protection" by sponsors drew opposition from union leaders, who saw it as the leading edge of a national campaign to require them to obtain a member's permission before spending dues on politics. The measure was rejected.
Pre-election polls indicated a majority of voters backed the bilingual education measure, which includes $50 million a year for 10 years to pay for tutoring. It will also allow parents to sue if teachers flout the law.
Proponents said the experiences of earlier generations show children can pick up English quickly. They argued that the current system condemns children to a linguistic limbo where they fall behind their English-schooled peers.
Opponents admitted there are problems in bilingual education. But they said the sink-or-swim Unz solution will push a vulnerable population into dangerous waters.
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 Hispanic issue. Polls suggested the measure had wide support among Hispanic voters.
Supporters of the measure included the state Republican Party (over the objections of party leaders) and Jaime Escalante, the East Los Angeles teacher whose innovative methods were the subject of the movie Stand and Deliver. Opponents included the California Teachers Association, President Clinton, and all four candidates for governor.
The backers of Proposition 226, the union-dues measure, said union members should have a say in where their money is spent. With most union political efforts favoring Democrats, big business and Republicans led the fight for Proposition 226.
The initiative triggered a bitter spending war expected to top $20 million the costliest of the propositions on the primary ballot. Pre-election polls indicated that the measure, once a lopsided favorite to pass, had become a tossup.
The AFL-CIO ran $11 million worth of TV ads that questioned the motives of the initiative's backers and warned of dire consequences for everything from Medicare to food safety if labor's political advocacy was hampered.
Similar bills and propositions have arisen in more than two dozen states, and labor leaders hoped a defeat in California would deflate enthusiasm for the concept across the country.
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