Proposition 63: Much Talk, Few Effects

By James Crawford — June 17, 1987 5 min read

Its political effects nothwithstanding, Proposition 63 has yet to exert any tangible effect on bilingual services, seven months after Californians overwhelmingly voted to declare English the state’s official language.

Lawsuits against government uses of foreign languages--authorized under the new constitutional amendment--have yet to materialize. Despite some early threats, measures to limit languages other than English have yet to be introduced in the legislature. In fact, opponents of Proposition 63 have gone on the offensive with measures to increase funding for adult English instruction.

And last week, a break appeared imminent in the legislative logjam over California’s bilingual-education law, which is set to expire at the end of this month.

Both sides cautioned, however, that it is too soon to gauge the consequences of Proposition 63.

Stanley Diamond, the California leader of U.S. English, said his group is preparing lawsuits over the continued use of multilingual ballots. Last month, an opinion by California’s Attorney General, John K. Van de Kamp, said the use of such ballots is still permissible under the English-language amendment.

As soon as it raises $200,000 for legal expenses, U.S. English plans to sue Los Angeles, San Francisco, Alameda County, and two municipalities near San Diego, Mr. Diamond said.

But the prediction that Proposition 63 would clog the courts with anti-bilingual litigation was “just part of the campaign of fear and deception’’ waged by the measure’s opponents, he argued.

Concerns had also been raised that Proposition 63 could lead to the elimination of foreign-language services ranging from “911'’ operators to multilingual drivers’ tests.

Last fall, Assemblyman Frank Hill, an influential Republican who helped sponsor Proposition 63, had promised legislation that would curtail many such services. But he has yet to do so, and has even joined with Senator Art Torres, a liberal Democrat, in seeking an expansion of adult-English programs.

“Has the nightmare come true?’' asked Edward M. Chen, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union and a leader of Californians United Against Proposition 63. “The answer is no, because they haven’t done anything yet. They are holding the Pandora’s box in their back pocket.’'

Californians United plans to intervene in any court action against bilingual services, Mr. Chen added, and, while it believes a 14th Amendment challenge could be brought against Proposition 63, the group plans to wait until its effects become clear.

As for legislation, U.S. English “would be shooting itself in the foot to introduce draconian pieces of legislation when they’re introducing all these bills in other states,’' he said. He predicted that the group, working with Republicans legislators, would push such measures to gain an advantage in the 1988 elections.

Bilingual Bill

Bilingual education had appeared particularly vulnerable to the political fallout of Proposition 63, if not its legal impact, following Gov. George Deukmejian’s veto last fall of legislation extending the program.

Among bilingual educators, California’s statute was widely regarded as the most advanced in the country, with its detailed standards for teacher certification, student assessment, and instructional methods.

Conversely, the law has been a major target of Proposition 63 advocates. In an interview last week, Mr. Diamond argued that an expansion of adult education should be financed through savings from elementary and secondary bilingual programs.

“We do not have to have bilingual teachers,’' he said. “All we have to have is an aide. And we don’t need [native-language] teaching materials.’'

As a result of the Governor’s veto, the current law is scheduled to expire on June 30. Assembly Speaker Willie Brown is the sponsor of a bill, AB 37, to reauthorize bilingual education and six other education programs for five years.

Although the bill has passed the Assembly with a simple majority, and a Senate committee last week, under California law a two-thirds vote is needed for “urgency legislation’’ to extend such programs in the same year. Without Republican support, AB 37 could not take effect until next January--meaning there would be a six-month hiatus in the law.

That support had appeared unlikely until last week. Hoping to avert an embarrassing termination of several popular programs--and the lawsuits likely to result--Governor Deukmejian has begun to push for a compromise on bilingual education, according to Benjamin M. Lopez, a lobbyist for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.

Mr. Lopez was a party to negotiations involving Mr. Brown, Assemblyman Hill, and a top aide to the Governor. He said Mr. Hill had dropped or softened most of his objections to the bilingual-education law: the 10-student “trigger’’ for bilingual classrooms, the lack of written parental consent for children to participate, a need for “greater flexibility’’ for school districts, and the waiver system now used to cope with the shortage of bilingual teachers.

An agreement in principle was reached on many of the sticking points, Mr. Lopez said, and a compromise could come as early as this week. All parties have agreed that the accord would head off the “sunset’’ of bilingual education, he added.

Should that fail, the “big 20'’ school districts plan to observe the expired law, Mr. Lopez said, to head off civil-rights litigation.

Limiting Proposition 63

Meanwhile, the legislature is also considering several measures that would limit citizen lawsuits to enforce Proposition 63, which may be filed by anyone who lives or conducts business in California. While one such bill, AB 183, was defeated two weeks ago in the Assembly, a similar bill is pending in the Senate.

For school districts, the bills would provide shelter from litigation in two ways: by allowing suits only against the state, and not against municipalities, and by restricting court challenges to new statutes. Also, the legislation would discourage frivolous lawsuits against services for non-English-speakers by forbidding courts to award lawyers’ fees to successful plaintiffs.

Assemblyman Hill successfully discouraged Democrats’ support for AB 183 by threatening to mail out 200,000 letters showing the voters how they had attempted “to overturn Proposition 63 and thwart the will of the people.’' After being released from commitments by the bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Elihu Harris, all but four Democrats abstained.

A bill sponsored by Senator Art Torres is likely to pass the Senate, Mr. Lopez said, and the issue would again come before the Assembly, where it has been “a totally partisan issue.’'

A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 1987 edition of Education Week as Proposition 63: Much Talk, Few Effects