Silly Assessments

Silly Assessments by Ron Unz
National Journal (Letters), Saturday, July 15, 2000

I appreciated John Maggs’ thoughtful article on ballot initiatives (“Ballot Boxing,” 7/1/2000, p. 2144) but have a few comments.

First, Peter Schrag’s book on the harmful consequences of Proposition 13 in California claims that by limiting property taxes, that landmark measure resulted in decades of “disinvestment” in California’s public schools, and their consequent decline; and Maggs cites this argument without comment.

Although such a claim may have surface appeal, the actual statistics prove that it is very silly indeed. During the 25 years surrounding the passage of Prop. 13, per student spending in California public schools actually rose by about 150 percent in real terms. And while Schrag, a somewhat doctrinaire liberal, might regard a huge rise in real spending as “disinvestment,” few others would. The actual cause of educational decline was the growth and expansion of a whole series of disastrously unsuccessful curricular innovations such as whole language, bilingual education, and fuzzy math, and the rollback of these failed ideas has led the way back to improved test scores.

Second, Maggs suggests that David Broder’s rather negative book on initiatives cites my own anti-bilingual education measure, Prop. 227, as a prime example of the dangers of the initiative process. To the contrary, the few pages Broder devotes to my campaign are not at all critical, but are instead actually rather favorable. Furthermore, when Broder’s book tour brought him to Palo Alto, his speech before the Commonwealth Club singled out my initiative campaigns for praise, while he signed my copy of his book with the remarks that my efforts probably represented the “original intent” of the idealistic reformers who established the initiative process.

Finally, the victory of Prop. 227 in June 1998 tends to confirm Maggs’ suggestion that Broder may be exaggerating the power of money in initiative campaigns. Besides being strongly opposed by the political establishments of both parties, our “English for the Children” measure was outspent by some 25-to-1 in advertising, yet still won one of the largest landslide victories of any initiative since Prop. 13 in 1978. The rapid and dramatic subsequent rise in the academic performance of 1.4 million immigrant students in California shows that the voters were right and the politicians were wrong about dismantling bilingual education. The voters of Arizona will have the same opportunity this November.

– Ron Unz, Palo Alto, Calif.

(The writer is author of Propositions 227 and 25.)

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