WASHINGTON — The Clinton administration, after months of spirited internal debate, has decided to formally oppose California's Proposition 227, which would ban bilingual education, according to officials in the White House and the Department of Education.
Education Secretary Richard W. Riley is expected to announce the White House decision as early as today. He also is expected to point out that the administration is considering moving toward a goal of limiting participation in bilingual programs to three years.
"The overriding goal here is to make sure kids learn English," said one well-placed administration official. "As we looked into this, we became convinced that [Proposition 227] was not the right way to do that. That kind of extreme approach is likely to result in fewer kids learning English and fewer kids doing well in other academic subjects."
Proposition 227 would replace today's patchwork of bilingual programs, some of which can last for years, with a one-year immersion in English instruction for those with limited proficiency. The overwhelming majority of students then would be shifted into English-speaking classrooms.
So popular is the measure with the public--it enjoys a support level of about 70% in a recent poll--that Clinton's opposition would have to influence a huge slice of the electorate before it could affect the outcome of the June 2 vote.
Although many Latinos are among those supporting Proposition 227, some activists have assailed it as educationally destructive and the latest in a string of California ballot initiatives tinged with racism. Latino activists had urged the White House to weigh in on the statewide debate.
"We welcome the White House coming out against Proposition 227," said Ambrosio Rodriguez, an attorney in Washington for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
These activists, however, oppose arbitrary limits, such as the three-year period under consideration by the White House, on participation in bilingual programs by individual students. "We know that bilingual education works best without a time limit," Rodriguez said.
Advocates of the ballot measure, whose author is conservative entrepreneur Ron K. Unz, disapproved of the administration's new stance and are not appeased by White House consideration of a three-year goal for participation in bilingual programs.
"I think President Clinton has become the most misinformed citizen in the United States," said Fernando Vega, a former school board member in Redwood City and a regional honorary chairman of the movement for Proposition 227. "We are losing generations and generations of Latino kids to this program called bilingual education."
Clinton, he maintained, "is listening to groups that have an interest in the funding of bilingual education--money that is badly spent."
The administration finds itself caught in the cross-fire. White House officials have had difficulty crafting a politically acceptable retort to Proposition 227 without appearing to endorse the wide variations in the quality of bilingual education programs, many of whose students never make the transition to English-based classrooms.
An administration source explained that policymakers sought a formula for opposing Proposition 227 without appearing to support the status quo. "You can't defend the status quo," the source said.
The administration concluded that the California proposition would impose an overly rigid time frame on students and remove the flexibility of schools and teachers to design the most appropriate programs for local needs.
To many, the highly charged controversy over bilingual education is linked to deeply held opinions about the role of schools. Those who would defend or build upon the current system cite research that continued instruction in a person's native language, along with English, can help in the transition to mainstream U.S. classrooms.
But the system's many critics retort that bilingual education too often puts students in a backwater from which they can never get to the mainstream.
The California flap is stirring a national debate. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), for example, plans to introduce a bill this week to eliminate the Education Department's office of bilingual education and shift its entire $200-million budget to other activities in the department.
"The point of the bill is that bilingual education fails the kids it's supposed to be serving," said a spokesman for DeLay.
With the June 2 vote on the proposition approaching, White House aides earlier this month presented Clinton with a nine-page memo proposing that he formally oppose it. The internal memo also set forth principles that officials maintain would make bilingual programs more effective. Clinton signaled his approval of the document last week.