'Official English' Laws Win Approval in 3 States

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Copyright 1988 Voters in Florida, Colorado, and Arizona last week approved ballot measures that would make English the official language of their states.

Supporters of the state constitutional amendments said they were hopeful that their victories would fuel support for changes in state bilingual-education programs and the adoption of an official-English amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Seventeen states now have such laws, although only four were enacted by popular vote.

"We're hoping this will send a very strong signal to Congress this year, as we start working on issues such as bilingual education and the federal English amendment," said Tom Olson, public-affairs director for U.S. English, a national group that heavily backed the initiatives.

Opponents, however, maintained that intensive public-education efforts and recent controversies surrounding the official-English movement narrowed the margin of support for the measures and diminished the strength of the "mandate" proponents had sought.

Martha Jiminez, legislative attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said that despite the "hundreds of thousands of dollars" invested by backers of the initiatives, "they didn't get the blowout they wanted."

When voters could be reached "with valuable and pertinent information," she said, "they were not to be deceived."

The victory was narrowest in Arizona, where the measure was approved by 51 percent of the voters.

Perry G. Baker, a spokesman for the "No on Proposition 106 Committee," said publicity surrounding the disclosure of a controversial memorandum by the former chairman of U.S. English had helped to diminish support for the measure. (See Education Week, Nov. 2, 1988.)

In Colorado, the measure received the backing of 61 percent of the voters; in Florida, 84 percent of the voters approved it.

Despite the wide margin of support, however, an incident last week at a victory celebration in Miami signaled dissenion among supporters, according to Jeffrey T. Browne, coordinator of an opposition group called Speak Up Now for Florida.

Mr. Browne said that Mark A. LaPorta, who led the Florida English Campaign, was "denounced as a traitor" by fellow supporters of the amendment when he issued a joint statement with the director of sun for Florida, John Webber.

The statement said that the state should take steps to help people learn English but that the law should not be used to "coerce, punish, or encumber the rights" of those who do not speak English. It also called for the repeal of an "anti-bilingual ordinance" passed in Dade County in 1980, which sharply restricted the circulation of county materials in langauges other than English.

Angry supporters then "rushed the stage" during the news conference, which dissolved into confusion, Mr. Browne said. The fracas, he added, demonstrated "a big difference between the moderates who have created a facade of respectability for this amendment and the extremists who are supporting it."

Dr. LaPorta, who retracted his statement following the news conference, said last week that the reference to the Dade County ordinance had caused the greatest consternation among supporters. He said he hoped laws enforcing the state's official-English amendment would ultimately supercede and make unnecessary an "antibilingual" ordinance.

But he maintained that he was "politically naive" to call for its repeal publicly without consulting fellow supporters.

Dr. LaPorta added, however, that their behavior during the news conference was "less than decorous."

Mr. Olson said last week that he hoped supporters could "work together with opponents to work on the common ground of promoting English proficiency."

Opponents of the Florida measure had suffered a setback just before Election Day, when a federal appeals court dismissed a lawsuit that sought to invalidate petitions that placed the official-English amendment on the ballot.

The plaintiffs charged that the proposal should be declared invalid because sponsors failed to circulate Spanish-language petitions in some areas whose election procedures are covered under the federal Voting Rights Act. But a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that the law "does not apply to initiative petitions."

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit issued a similar ruling in Colorado last month.

Although the ballot petitions for the official-English amendment were not subject to a similar challenge in Arizona, Mr. Baker of the Arizona opposition group said his people last week were "mapping out a strategy" to challenge the measure itself in court.

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