ORANGE — At first blush, results from the Orange Unified School District election seem a resounding endorsement of the budding "back to basics" movement in local school politics and a rebuke of teachers unions.
Undoubtedly that is part of the story in Orange County, where education conservatives have made significant electoral gains in recent years.
But analysts said Wednesday that a key factor pushing conservative candidates over the top in four close races may have been an advisory measure on bilingual education.
Measure A, which asked voters whether they supported an Orange school board decision to replace bilingual instruction with an English immersion program, won Tuesday with 86.5% of the vote, according to unofficial final returns.
"People really don't like bilingual education. That's what I read," said Louise Adler, chairwoman of the education faculty at Cal State Fullerton. "That's a high-profile issue that the board majority got on the right side of. They were the champions for getting rid of bilingual education. And there was a broad base of support for that position."
Adler and others said the magnitude of the "Yes on A" victory, and the possibility that the measure increased voter turnout, may have had a ripple effect that boosted conservative candidates.
The election appeared to generate unusual interest for an off year with no state or national issues on the ballot. Turnout was 19.6%, up from 14.3% two years ago.
The district serves 29,000 students in Orange, Villa Park and parts of Anaheim, Santa Ana and Garden Grove.
Wayne Johnson, vice president of the California Teachers Assn., said the Orange Unified board election was the only significant loss for his organization among 10 local school contests waged statewide. He blamed the defeat in part on the bilingual measure.
"That obviously pulled out a lot of votes that normally would not have voted in this election," he said. "It is one of these highly charged, very emotional issues throughout the state. So it generated a lot of interest and a lot of passion."
State Sen. John Lewis (R-Orange) agreed with Johnson, though he also viewed the vote as an emphatic anti-union statement. Because the bilingual education issue has such a high profile, Lewis said, "it drove up turnout, and it brought out a lot more conservative votes."
If so, centrist and liberal candidates around the state could face more difficulty next year.
A statewide anti-bilingual education initiative has been proposed for the June ballot. It would be decided at the same time as contests for state superintendent of public instruction, Orange County superintendent of schools, two seats on the Orange County Board of Education and a host of other local education posts around the state.
The California teachers union opposes the so-called English for the Children measure, but Johnson said he does not believe that stance will hurt union-backed candidates next year.
State Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin also opposes the proposed initiative, spokesman Doug Stone said.
Not all observers agreed that bilingual education was the key to the Orange Unified school board contests won Tuesday by incumbent board President Martin Jacobson and newcomers Linda Davis, Terri Sargeant and Kathy Ward.
Scheduled to be sworn in Dec. 11 for four-year terms, the victors will probably be allied with trustees Maureen Aschoff and Bill Lewis in a 6-1 majority on many issues, leaving Robert Viviano the lone remaining centrist.
However, last spring Viviano and his two fellow moderates joined with the conservative four-person majority in a unanimous vote to end bilingual education.
Jacobson said he sensed that voters simply wanted a return to fundamentals. "Just teach basic skills to our kids," he said was the electorate's message.
"I think most people are pretty satisfied with their particular school, but in general they look at public education as failing to prepare kids properly."
Suzanne Vaugine, president of the Orange Unified teachers union affiliate and Jacobson's chief critic, said teachers are just as eager for students to learn how to read and how to add. But rather than "back to basics," she said, teachers favor a policy of "basics plus."
"We seem to be in a cyclical time of a very ultraconservative mentality," Vaugine said. "Everything's polarized. I think most people are fairly moderate. I don't consider us liberal; I consider us moderate."
Some observers suggested that the Orange Unified vote represented both a general conservative uprising and a repudiation of bilingual education.
In coming months, political pros will be paying close attention to the sentiments of voters like those who backed the winners Tuesday.
Douglas Ginesi, 46, an aerospace manager, voted against bilingual education and with the conservative majority. "The last time we had liberals on the board we had red ink," he said.
His wife, Barbara, a 41-year-old medical worker, added: "The more kids speak English, the better it is."
Times correspondent Lesley Wright contributed to this report.