37 States Consider ‘English Only’ Bills, With Mixed Results

By James Crawford — June 17, 1987 11 min read
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When Arkansas legislators declared English the state’s official language last February--after designating a state vegetable, but failing to agree on an official rock or a state fish--many citizens asked whether their representatives could not find better things to do.

The new law, which passed the House on a 94-to-0 vote, represents “an affirmative statement [about] the one unifying bond that holds us all together--the English language,’' according to Representative Bob Fairchild, the measure’s chief sponsor.

“It is not seen as something with much effect on education or any other aspect of life,’' explained Kay Williams, a spokesman for the Arkansas education department.

But in neighboring states, official-English measures were not taken so lightly.

In Louisiana, the Senate Education Committee defeated a proposed constitutional amendment after lawmakers expressed concerns that it would jeopardize federally funded bilingual instruction, as well as efforts to promote Cajun French.

In Oklahoma, Senator Kelly Haney, a Seminole Indian, led a successful battle against an “English only’’ resolution, arguing that it unfairly questioned the patriotism of language-minority groups, while doing nothing to promote English literacy.

And in Texas, a proposed constitutional amendment came close, but failed to enlist the two-thirds legislative support required to bring it before the voters. Openly aimed at bilingual education and the alleged failure of Mexican-Americans to learn English, the campaign inflamed ethnic animosities, leaders on both sides agree.

With widely varying results, the official-language debate spread to 37 state legislatures this year--more than twice the 1986 total--according to a survey conducted by Education Week in early June.

Mississippi, North Dakota, and South Carolina, in addition to Arkansas, have made English their official language this year, bringing the total of such states to 12.

North Carolina appears likely to follow suit, and similar measures remain alive in seven other states. Thirteen legislatures voted it down; others adjourned without taking action.

In three states--Arizona, Colorado, and Florida--organizers have announced petition drives to put the issue on the 1988 ballot as a constitutional amendment.

Proponents and opponents of official English, who agree on little else, credit California’s Proposition 63 for the dramatic expansion of activity this year. The constitutional amendment, approved by 73 percent of the voters last November, not only declares English the state language, but restricts the official uses of other tongues and allows citizens to sue to enforce the measure.

The implications for bilingual education and various foreign-language services are still being sorted out. (See related story, page 15.)

Congressional Opposition

Proposals to give English official recognition in the U.S. Constitution have languished in the Congress since 1981. This year, prospects appear even dimmer.

Several Senate backers have died or lost re-election bids, and Senator Paul Simon, an Illinois Democrat and a strong supporter of bilingual education, is now chairman of the subcommittee on the Constitution.

The panel has received few calls in support of the English-language amendment, SJ Res 13, said John Trasvina, an aide to Senator Simon. Its sponsor, Senator Steve Symms, Republican of Idaho, recently conceded that the amendment was unlikely to advance in the 100th Congress.

One House sponsor, Representative Norman D. Shumway, Republican of California, recently introduced a non-binding “sense of Congress’’ resolution on the issue. The measure, H Con Res 129, has attracted substantial support from Representatives who want to recognize English, but who are hesitant about amending the Constitution, a spokesman for Mr. Shumway said.

Recognizing the adverse climate at the federal level, official-language proponents are directing most of their efforts toward the states.

“We’re pretty happy with the outcome in the states this year,’' said Steve Workings, government-relations director of U.S. English, one of two national groups spearheading the campaign.

Many legislatures considered the issue for the first time, he added. “Sometimes you can get more accomplished by discussing this amendment than by passing it,’' he said. “That’s why U.S. English is an educational organization.’'

Legislative Pattern

According to the survey, where there appeared to be the least discussion, the measures were most likely to pass. In such states--all with relatively small non-English-speaking populations--the main question was whether an official-language declaration was needed.

Education officials generally saw the measures as symbolic.

In Mississippi, some concerns were raised about the law’s potential effects on services for Southeast Asian refugees, and sponsors gave assurances there would be none, said Andy Mullins, who handles legislative relations for the state board of education.

Lawmakers enacted the measure after disposing of several light-hearted amendments, including one requiring Mississippi legislators to take an English-proficiency test.

By contrast, in every state where ethnic communities raised objections, official-English legislation has been defeated or buried in committee, with the exception of a few bills still pending. At the heart of most debates was the issue of the threat to bilingual services.

Most of the measures under consideration simply declare English to be the official language. As statutes, such declarations have yet to invalidate bilingual services, although they have prompted some attempts to do so. A 1969 law declaring English the official language of Illinois has had no effect on bilingual education there.

But when official-language provisions are added to state constitutions, the uncertainty grows, according to several legal scholars. Fourteen such amendments were considered this year; none passed.

In addition to declaring English the official language, various proposals this year would instruct legislatures to pass “appropriate’’ legislation, forbid the requirement of foreign-language services, or give taxpayers standing to sue against bilingual programs they oppose.

Education Impact

A few measures would explicitly permit bilingual education that is designed to teach English. Depending on how such provisions were interpreted, they could restrict the duration of native-language instruction.

In Delaware, a proposed constitutional amendment would prohibit bilingual education. Rebecca Scarborough, the state’s supervisor of foreign-language instruction, said the measure, which is pending, could create problems with a federal desegregation order in Wilmington, where about 400 children are enrolled in the state’s only bilingual program.

A policy recently adopted by Delaware’s department of public instruction places time limits on bilingual instruction and stresses English-as-a-second-language classes, she added.

“There’s some ignorance on the part of the sponsors of this bill as to what we’re doing,’' Ms. Scarborough said. “We’re in favor of teaching English, but legislating how to teach is something else.’'

Opposition to the federal bilingual-education policy has been a major theme of the official-language movement and a factor in its growth, according to the groups leading it.

Former Senator S.I. Hayakawa, the California Republican who founded U.S. English in 1983, charged in a recent interview that “tens of thousands’’ of so-called bilingual teachers with temporary certifications cannot speak English.

As a result, he charged, “after four, five, six years, kids are still being taught in Spanish and haven’t learned the English language yet.’'

“Those children are being crippled for participation in American life,’' he said.

Bilingual-education advocates have characterized such charges as gross misrepresentations, noting that English instruction must be a component of federally funded programs.

“There’s no way a non-English-speaking person could be considered a teacher,’' according to Concepcion Valadez of the University of California at Los Angeles, who recently completed a study of state laws governing bilingual-teacher certifications.

While California has a large number of teachers “on waiver,’' she said, such instructors are overwhelmingly English-speakers not yet proficient in children’s native languages. These and all other certified teachers in California must pass a rigorous test in English before being assigned to classrooms, she added.

Opposition Efforts

The National Association for Bilingual Education has actively opposed official-English bills in several states. Its Massachusetts affiliate impressed a legislative committee by bringing a 6-year-old bilingual student to testify first in Spanish, then in fluent English, about her love of school and her multicultural friendships.

The state’s Attorney General, James Shannon, also slowed the momentum of such measures by predicting “legal chaos’’ and an increase in “bigotry, divisiveness, and resentment of members of minority groups’’ if they were enacted. One of the bill’s sponsors has conceded that the measure is dead for this year.

A multi-ethnic coalition lobbied successfully against a proposed constitutional amendment in New York State, which was defeated in May in the Assembly Education Committee.

The Committee for a Multilingual New York enlisted the aid of Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, who denounced the measure as “repugnant’’ and “a renunciation of our multilingual national origins.’'

Diana Caballero, a spokesman for the group, attributed its success to support by a range of ethnic and education groups: black, Chinese, Korean, Jewish, Puerto Rican, Italian, Greek, Russian, Polish, and Haitian.

Bitter Campaigns

At first, the idea of an official language seems innocent to many, who fail to see its discriminatory implications, said Ramiro L. Estrada, director of Ohio’s Commission on Spanish-Speaking Affairs.

“But after you’ve had an opportunity to debate it,’' he said, “once people are informed, they say, ‘Yes, it’s not necessary to declare an official language to create a common bond. This is America; this is the melting pot.’''

“We’re trying to show this isn’t a predominantly Hispanic issue,’' Mr. Estrada said, noting that an earlier wave of “language restrictionism’’ had been aimed at Germans.

Ohio, which was the first state to authorize bilingual education in 1839--reflecting its sizable German-speaking population--was one of several states to ban foreign-language instruction following World War I.

After he wrote state legislators to recommend last month that an official-English bill not be approved, Mr. Estrada said, one of its supporters returned his letter with an obscenity stamped on it. The lawmaker also wrote a letter suggesting that Mr. Estrada “consider moving to a country that does have an official language that makes you happy.’'

The exchange “unmasks the intent’’ of official-language proponents--to insinuate that Americans who speak languages other than English are disloyal--Mr. Estrada said.

Ohio is not alone among states where such campaigns have turned bitter.

In Texas, the drive to adopt English as the official language has become “really tough,’' said Willie Velasquez, director of the Southwest Voter Registration Project. On the surface, it is a debate over language, but the real agenda is a backlash against immigrants in an economically troubled state, he argued.

“English-only [advocates] are riding a very powerful wave of reaction against Mexicans,’' he said, noting that they use such racially loaded terms as “linguistic ghettos.’'

Lou Zaeske, founder of the American Ethnic Coalition in Bryan, Tex., and a leader of the official-English drive, referred to Hispanic leaders as “political padrones [who] are exploiting their own people [by] keeping them less well-educated in English, so they’ll always have a group to represent.’'

“If you don’t inspire an impetus to learn a language, they’re not going to learn it,’' he said, arguing that bilingual education and other programs are counterproductive.

“Of all the ethnic groups,’' Mr. Zaeske said, “the one with the highest dropout rate and the hardest time assimilating--as contrasted with the Vietnamese--are the Hispanics, because these people are encouraged to cling to their ethnicity.’'

The official-language amendment died in committee, although 88 members of the Texas House had declared their support, with 100 votes needed for passage, Mr. Velasquez said.

Polling Variance

Mr. Zaeske vowed to continue the fight next year, noting that, in two recent opinion polls, 70 percent to 74 percent of Texans favored making English the official language.

In Connecticut, 91 percent of respondents favored such an amendment in a poll conducted by the University of Connecticut’s Institute for Social Inquiry. The poll appeared around the time the legislature’s Democratic leadership blocked committee consideration of two official-language bills.

Proponents have cited the disparity between such polls and the actions of politicians to justify going directly to the voters through petition and initiative campaigns.

Opponents, however, say such polls are misleading because the wording of their questions usually fails to indicate the implications of an official-language measure.

A recent CBS News/New York Times poll, conducted May 11-14 but never published, found a significantly different result when it asked: “Would you favor or oppose an amendment to the [U.S.] Constitution that requires federal, state, and local governments to conduct business in English and not use other languages, even in places where people don’t speak English?’'

Respondents split evenly, 47 percent in favor and 47 percent opposed.

Besides the merits of the issue, other quirks have been known to influence the behavior of voters and politicians. Montana legislators came close to passing an official-English bill this year, said Angela Branz-Spall, who oversees the state’s bilingual-education program.

“Then someone pointed out that it wasn’t a home-grown initiative--it came from California,’' she said. “We’re a proud state. Montanans have a healthy skepticism of anything imported.’'

A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 1987 edition of Education Week as 37 States Consider ‘English Only’ Bills, With Mixed Results


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