“English” vs. Gov. Gray Davis of California?

The decision late last week by California’s unelected State Board of Education to effectively nullify crucial provisions of Proposition 227 is obviously an important educational issue.

That landmark 1998 initiative, which dismantled California’s system of bilingual education, has generally been credited with dramatically raising the academic performance of over a million immigrant students, and the proposed restoration of bilingual education might eventually cut Latino test scores by as much as 70%. Furthermore, voters this November in Colorado and Massachusetts are likely to be voting on similar ballot measures, and California’s action might certainly have an impact on those election campaigns.

However, the proposed regulatory changes are unlikely to have a direct educational impact until the beginning of the new school year in September, and may well have been successfully struck down by the courts prior to then. By contrast, California is currently in the early stages of a very high-profile gubernatorial campaign, and the most immediate impact of this momentous decision is likely to play itself out in the world of politics.

Earlier this week, Dan Walters, the influential dean of Sacramento political columnists, pointed out the potential political disaster for Gov. Gray Davis. Having been a leading opponent of Proposition 227 and one of the stars of the No television commercials, Davis has subsequently and repeatedly pledged to uphold the law that he opposed. Now his top educational appointees have broken that pledge, unlawfully resurrecting bilingual education, and created a “hot button” issue, a political “wedge” potentially devastating to Democratic candidates.

Furthermore, their proposed regulations explicitly remove the rights of program choice AWAY from Latino immigrant parents, transferring the authority to apply for a bilingual education waiver to bilingual education teachers and administrators, absolutely contrary to the language of Proposition 227. A governor who has long attempted to position himself as a moderate is thus burdened with defending a policy of illegally trampling the rights of Latino parents to have their children taught in English rather than in Spanish.

All three of the Republican gubernatorial candidates—Dick Riordan, Bill Simon, and Bill Jones—have repeatedly stressed both their strong opposition to bilingual education and their strong support for parental rights in education. Thus, as John Miller’s column in National Review stresses, they have been handed an absolutely golden political opportunity to give Gray Davis and his administration the full piñata treatment, from now until the primary vote in three weeks time, and then on through the general election.

At some point, Gov. Davis is likely to cut his political losses, and either reign in his loose-cannon appointees or renege on any secret deal that had been responsible for this U-turn in state policy. The longer he delays in taking such action, the more permanent damage he suffers, with ongoing newspaper headlines entering the opposition research files of whichever Republican he faces, to be presented to the voters in 30 second television attack ads during September and October.

And if the Davis Administration does not back down, the angry faces in those television commercials will be those of Latino parents, whose children were suddenly forced into Spanish-only programs without their approval at the beginning of the new September school year, exactly the sort of devastating visual images that can decide a statewide election.

Finally, the attached article in the San Diego Union-Tribune closes with a devastating quote from Reed Hastings, Davis’s appointee as President of the State Board of Education. Hastings, a remarkably honest and well-intentioned if sometimes confused software executive, freely admits that English immersion is far superior to bilingual education for the educational needs of immigrant students. This is hardly surprising, since he is certainly aware of the official California statistics indicating exactly this,


But he supports the new regulations anyway, thereby taking a position that could perhaps unfairly be characterized as “Bilingual education hurts kids, but let’s do it anyway.”

Those interesting in obtaining Hastings’s side of this story should certainly contact him for comment (he has previously indicated his desire for an opportunity to respond to the views presented in my last cyber-columns). The official State Board of Education web site lists his contact number as 1-408-399-3772 and his email as [email protected].

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