BY: Sherry Bebitch Jeffe
Orange County has provided an early peek at how the issue of bilingual education might play out in this year's state elections.
Last November, voters in the Orange Unified School District (OUSD) overwhelmingly approved advisory Measure A, which asked whether they agreed "with the recent decision of the Orange Unified School District to replace the bilingual education program with an English immersion literacy program." Eighty-six percent of the electorate answered "yes." Only 14 percent said "no."
So what. Typical of that bastion of rich, white, conservative Republicanism, you say? Look again. It's rash to chalk up Measure A's lop-sided support to an Orange County which no longer exists. Politically, the county is moving to the center. In University of California Irvine's 1996 Orange County Annual Survey, 33 percent of the residents described themselves as "middle-of-the-road" (compared with 26 percent in l990); only 9 percent called themselves "very conservative" (compared with 13 percent in 1990), and 6 percent identified themselves as "very liberal" (compared with 9 percent in 1990).
Demographically, Orange County is changing too. In 1980, the county's population was 78 percent white, 15 percent Latino, 5 percent Asian and I percent African-American. By 1990. It was 65 percent white, 23 percent Latino, 10 percent Asian and 2 percent black. Once renowned for its "affluent" image, Orange County is beginning to reflect the socioeconomic disparities which threaten Los Angeles. According to analyst Joel Kotkin, south Orange County is booming, but "working-class immigrant neighborhoods in Santa Ana and surrounding communities" in the central county "are still struggling."
OUSD serves some of these communities. its student population of some 28,000 is roughly 50 percent white, 34 percent Latino, I 1 percent Asian, 2 percent black; OUSD is "often viewed," according to the Orange County Register, "as a bellwether district in Southern California." Since 1993 the district's seven-member board has been dominated by "back-to-basics," social conservatives. Measure A was the board's response to protests by parents and Latino groups who charged board members ignored public opinions in deciding to shift to "English immersion" teaching.
A coalition of centrists, liberals, Latino advocacy groups and teachers' unions formed around several issues including bilingual education; it aimed to take control of the school board. The Orange Unified Education Association, and the California Teachers Association spent at least $60,000 in support of four union-endorsed candidates on the November ballot. Nonetheless, conservatives emerged from a contentious campaign with an increased board majority.
Did the union's pro-lingual stance doom the OUSD candidates it endorsed? Wayne Johnson, vice president of the CTA, told the Los Angeles Times that the Orange Unified election was "the only significant loss for the union among 10 local school contests" on the November ballot. And he blamed that defeat - at least in part - on Measure A. Said Johnson, "That obviously pulled out a lot of votes that normally would not have voted in this election."
Turnout was up over 5 percent from two years ago; but there are no exit polls available to identify who turned out in Orange County to vote for or against Measure A. Did the issue motivate conservative voters? Or Latinos? What was the breadth and depth of support for ending bilingual education among various constituencies? How might that translate statewide?
Ron Unz's "English for the Children" Initiative, which would dismantle bilingual education programs in California schools, is heading for the June 1998 ballot. Will the debate over that proposition polarize the electorate? Could the statewide campaign become heated and divisive, as combatants attempt to energize their electoral base? Might CTA's opposition to the Unz initiative threaten union-backed candidates in 1998 races?
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, up for re-election, opposes the Unz initiative. Could her stand make her vulnerable? Hers is a non-partisan office; if Eastin garners over 50 percent of the vote, she would win reelection outright in the primary. Could fall-out from an anti-bilingual measure on the same ballot help push her into a November runoff?
The day after the OUSD election, Governor Pete Wilson touted his education agenda before the Orange County Forum, a bipartisan group of county business and governmental leaders. He hardly touched on Measure A's landslide victory. His reticence makes sense; bilingual education presents the Republican governor with a potentially no-win issue.
Party activists endorsed the Unz initiative at the last state GOP convention. And Wilson needs these partisans - for another presidential flirtation or to give him friendly legislators. Conversely, there is great nervousness among party leaders that opposition to bilingual education could backfire. Harry Pachon, director of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, characterized the confrontation over bilingual education which faced Orange as a potential "third strike" affecting California minorities, following on the heels of Propositions 187 and 209. And that could result, he predicted, in Latinos becoming more politically active.
The harsh rhetoric that permeated debate over immigration and affirmative action saddled Republicans with a mean-spirited, hard-right image. In the 1996 elections, it cost them dearly among California's burgeoning minority populations. A divisive fight over bilingual education could give the GOP an even bigger political headache this year - when the governorship, a U.S. Senate seat and control of the Legislature are on the line.