California's Bilingual Battle

Across California, an electorate still sore from battles over affirmative action and immigration is gearing up for yet another ballot initiative fraught with issues of race and culture.

If passed, Proposition 227, would all but eliminate bilingual education in California. It would give non-native speaking children a year to learn English in mandatory language immersion programs.

Ron Unz, a millionaire and failed candidate for governor, proposed the initiative. The ballot will go before voters on June 2.

Supporters of Proposition 227 say that bilingual education does little to teach children English and causes them to fall behind their English-speaking classmates academically.

In California, about 1.4 million of the state's 5 million public students have limited ability to speak English. The majority of those children speak Spanish as a first language, turning the bilingual debate into a largely Hispanic issue.

"Bilingual education has failed. It has failed throughout the state of California," said Fernando Vega, a proponent of the ballot measure.

Thirty years ago, Vega was happy to arrange bilingual education classes as a member of the Redwood City school board 30 years ago. But he became dismayed when the program evolved into classes taught primarily in Spanish - and aghast when officials later tried to enroll his English-speaking grandson.

The ballot measure has been endorsed by the state Republican Party over the objections of some GOP leaders. Opponents include the California Teachers Association and President Clinton.

Republican Gov. Pete Wilson has not endorsed the measure, but aides say he is leaning toward supporting it.

As with the 1994 Proposition 187 battle over cutting off state services to illegal immigrants (passed but tied up in court), California's bilingual battle is being watched by other states.

If it passes, "it's not just going to affect California" but is likely to undermine national bilingual funding, said Eugene Garcia, former director of the federal Office of Bilingual Education.

Nationally, about 3.2 million students have limited English skills mainly in Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois and 1.3 million are in bilingual programs, according to the Education Department.

An independent poll released Tuesday found that Proposition 227 has 71 percent support. The survey was conducted April 20-28 among 1,312 adults, including 931 registered voters.

Unz, 36, who unsuccessfully challenged Wilson for the nomination in 1994, denied playing racial politics.

"I really can't think of anything that would more benefit California's immigrant population than ensuring that their children are taught English when they go to school," he said.

Isabel Vazquez opposes the ballot proposition. She recalls being shunted into a class for "special needs" children 30 years ago when her teachers in rural California mistook her poor Engish for mental deficiency.

As a parent, Vazquez enrolled her 9-year-old son in a bilingual program to give him a sense of cultural identity and a multilingual edge.

Vazquez said that wiping out the program will cut off help and hope.

"It's an extreme approach, it's a dishonest approach to addressing the very real needs that we have in the public education arena," she said.