Today, on the important issue of whether immigrant children should be taught English in American schools, the Republican party is in danger of having won the war but lost the peace.
For nearly thirty years, the Republican Party has been on record as opposing so-called bilingual-education programs, which all too often amount to Spanish-only instruction for immigrant children in public schools. For nearly thirty years, the Democratic party has generally favored these programs. During all those long decades, the endless battle was generally confined to empty rhetoric, with the loudest voices on the one side often representing none-too-subtle xenophobia and nativism and those on the other preaching ethnic separatism and Anglophobia. Denunciation of bilingual programs became a typical, if minor, applause line in conservative speeches, while praise for such programs filled the same role for liberal oratory. Regardless of which party controlled Congress or the White House, almost nothing substantive was ever proposed, let alone enacted.
English-only advocacy organizations discovered the issue was an outstanding fundraising tool, with U.S. English alone raising and spending some $200 million over a ten-year period, nearly all of it going to fundraising expenses and general administrative overhead. Very little effort went into determining whether the bilingual programs were succeeding even by their own standards, or were desired by the immigrant Hispanic parents on whose behalf they had been established. And bilingual programs steadily expanded from the pilot projects of the early 1970s to eventually include millions of students around the nation by the mid-1990s.
Then, in 1996, a leftist former Catholic nun in Los Angeles led a group of poor immigrant Hispanic parents in a boycott of their Spanish-only school — they wanted their children taught English instead. That boycott sparked the “English for the Children” initiative campaign, which qualified Proposition 227 for the ballot in 1997 and achieved a landslide 61% victory in June 1998, despite being outspent some 25-1 in advertising. The measure required all California schoolchildren, under normal circumstances, to be taught English — and effectively dismantled the state’s thirty-year-old system of bilingual education.
Initial legal challenges were overcome in just a few weeks, and as the new school year began in September 1998, the better part of a million California students who had previously been enrolled in bilingual programs of various types began English-immersion classes of various types. Threats of massive resistance on the part of bilingual activists just faded away, and tens of thousands of Spanish-language textbooks were junked or returned to their publishers for refunds. While some school districts dragged their heels in implementing the law and bilingual programs were not completely eliminated, they were enormously reduced in size — by up to 90%, according to some official estimates.
Better still, the early and continuing news reports of the results of this educational transformation — by the same “liberal media” allegedly so biased against conservatives and conservative causes — were amazingly, glowingly positive, citing parent after parent and teacher after teacher about how well the new curriculum was working and how quickly and easily immigrant children were learning English. Even former bilingual-education teachers who had fought Prop. 227 tooth and nail told reporters that if the election were held again, they might well vote in favor of the measure.
And in July 1999, these anecdotal accounts of tremendous success were reinforced by quantitative data, as the release of California’s new student test scores showed huge gains for 1.4 million immigrant students, an average of 20% statewide, with much lower increases in those districts which had resisted implementing Prop. 227 and much greater jumps — of 50% or more — in those districts which had most strictly followed the new law.
Polling data soon revealed astonishing levels of national and regional support for this type of curriculum. In late 1998, a national Zogby poll of over 1,900 voters showed 77% support (and only 19% opposition) for the idea of requiring all public-school instruction in English, crossing all lines of ethnicity, geography, ideology, and political party. A separate Zogby poll of 1,400 New York voters around the same time showed even greater support: 79% to 14%. Other polls have demonstrated the intensity of the support, by showing net swings of up to 40 points or more toward candidates supporting English in schools.
Such a political windfall appears quite rarely: an overwhelmingly popular and overwhelmingly successful proposal that fulfills part of an endlessly promised ideological agenda. The California Republican party had endorsed Prop. 227, while President Bill Clinton and the California Democratic party had opposed it. The Republicans merely had to hold a few press conferences, declare their victory, and capture the issue for years to come, while Democrats worked to explain away their mistaken opposition.
Instead, the Republican response was the following: dead silence, followed by retreat.
California Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren had opposed Prop. 227 in his primary, and maintained his opposition through to November, losing to Democrat Gray Davis by a 20-point margin, and also running 20 points behind Prop. 227 among both Hispanics and the general electorate.
The Congressional Republicans, once so eager to expel hundreds of thousands of immigrant kids from public schools and remove their birthright American citizenship, suddenly decided that teaching English in American public schools was far too controversial and racially charged a proposal to deserve their support.
Both Gov. George W. Bush and his Presidential rival, Sen. John McCain, both endorsed the merits of bilingual education (with a few disclaimers) and declared their opposition to any requirement of “English in the schools.”
Following these national leaders, moderate and even mainstream conservative Republicans began avoiding the issue as much as possible, leaving support for English largely to elected officials from the Pat Buchanan wing of the party, who tended to combine that position with extreme opposition to Hispanic immigration and immigrants in general, and whose support often did more harm than good.
But even while Republicans have been distancing themselves from an overwhelmingly popular issue, shrewd and opportunistic Democrats, especially in California, are doing the exact opposite. Gov. Gray Davis had strongly opposed Prop. 227, but promised to respect the will of the people; and there can be no complaints on this score. Not only has he vetoed several bills passed by the liberal Democratic legislature aimed at weakening Prop. 227 or removing some of the English-testing requirements, but he recently named Nancy Ichinaga — a leading advocate of English-immersion programs — to the State Board of Education, and also proposed a sevenfold increase in the budget for the adult English-literacy programs established by Prop. 227. Gov. Davis has now arguably moved to the “right” of the national Republicans on the bilingual-education issue.
If the national Democrats follow his lead, the Republicans could be in deep, deep trouble. Few prominent Hispanic public figures still believe in bilingual education, but nearly all (except for Cubans) are partisan Democrats, and most would much rather see Al Gore in the White House and Richard Gephardt in the Speakership than defend failed bilingual programs to the last trench. If Gore were to unveil a major initiative to spend billions of extra dollars each year to teach English as rapidly as possible to America’s new immigrants and their children, his stock would rise rapidly among both immigrants and non-immigrants, with the endorsement of leading Hispanics giving him all the necessary cover against any charges of “racism” or “pandering.” An Al Gore forcefully arguing that Hispanic schoolchildren should be taught English against a George W. Bush suggesting they should be taught Spanish might even threaten to bring Texas into the Democratic column.
Fortunately, the Republican wall of cowardly silence on this issue may be starting to crack. Just last week, Arizona congressman Matt Salmon endorsed the 227-type ballot measure scheduled for the November ballot, becoming nearly the first significant elected Republican in the nation to take such a stance. He was flanked at his press conference by 50 or more Hispanic immigrant parents and their children — wearing “English for the Children” T-shirts and carrying “English for the Children” signs — many of whom had driven hundreds of miles that morning to attend. The founding president of the California Association of Bilingual Educators, once a foe of Prop. 227 and now a convert, flew in from California to lend his weight to the effort. The television cameras and print photographers recorded an almost perfect political tableau: a courageous white Republican officeholder being cheered by dozens of Hispanic immigrants — parents, children, and community activists.
Too bad it wasn’t George W. Bush.
Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley software entrepreneur, was the author of Prop. 227