Prop. 227's critics attack mandated adult-literacy cost

Phil Garcia
Sacramento Bee

Thursday, April 23, 1998.

Behind in the polls and just weeks away from the vote, opponents of a ballot measure that would all but end bilingual education are out to tar the initiative as nothing less than a $500 million taxpayer boondoggle.

Be it in statements to the media, debates on talk radio or televised community forums, the new line of attack against Proposition 227 is that it would mandate $50 million a year for the next 10 years to be spent on adult literacy -- separate from any spending on classroom instruction. That's "taking money away from the schools to teach adults English at an additional cost to taxpayers," said one recent news release.

"In all the debates that I go to, . . . the main line of attack is the $50 million," Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley software entrepreneur backing the measure, said recently.

"This is coming from groups who have never opposed education spending. . . . They suddenly have switched gears just (weeks) before the election, which isn't very effective."

The main provision of Proposition 227 would mandate a statewide system of English-immersion instruction for the roughly 1.4 million California public school students identified as having limited English-speaking skills.

The initiative also has a provision calling for a $50 million-a-year "community-based English tutoring" program, starting with "the fiscal year in which this initiative is enacted and for each of the nine fiscal years following thereafter."

That provision adds that the money is to come from the state's general fund budget to provide free or subsidized adult English programs "to parents or other members of the community who pledge to provide personal English language tutoring to California school children with limited English proficiency."

According to the analysis by the state legislative analyst in the official primary ballot pamphlet, the costs of the provision "would likely reduce spending on other school programs by a like amount," although total state funding for K-12 schools "probably would not change" because of constitutionally guaranteed levels of spending.

Richie Ross, campaign consultant for Citizens for an Educated America, the group leading the fight against the Unz measure, called the English literacy proposal "a goofy idea."

"This is a new spending program to teach non-English speaking adults who pledge to tutor kids in English," Ross said. ". . . Had we liberals conceived of anything this stupid, we would have been stoned."

He suggested that the opposition media campaign -- once it starts -- would highlight the issue. "When you focus attention on this cockamamie $50 million-a-year boondoggle to give money to adults and not kids, people go ballistic," Ross said.

Unz retorted: "If the worst thing they can say is that it funds adult English literacy . . . it shows the desperation of their campaign. Normally, English literacy programs are motherhood and apple pie."

For months now, pollsters have consistently found strong voter support for the measure -- the latest being a Los Angeles Times poll released last week that showed 63 percent of likely voters favoring Proposition 227 and 23 percent opposed.

The poll, however, did find that those opposing the measure cited the $50 million-a-year provision for English-language tutoring as a key reason.

Assemblyman Rod Pacheco of Riverside, the Legislature's only Latino Republican, cited the $50 million provision among other reasons for his opposition to the measure during a recent interview with The Bee.

"(One) problem I have is the additional $500 million . . . for adult education in regard to English proficiency. We already provide that service in our state," Pacheco said. "I'm not for adding another $500 million on top of what we spend for bilingual education every year."

But Assemblyman Tom McClintock, R-Simi Valley, said he'd "rather pay $50 million a year for a system that works than pay $300 million a year for a system that fails 94 percent of our children every year.

"One of the legacies of the bilingual bureaucracy is that we have crippled an entire generation, leaving them without the tools to succeed in an English-speaking country," McClintock added.

But Ross remained undeterred. "It'll be dead meat when we finish," he predicted.