Politics & Policy

English on the Ballot

Language votes.

On November 4, official English was on Missouri’s ballot, and Oregon voters were asked to put a time limit on bilingual education. English was also part of several House and Senate races. Here’s a look at how those efforts went.

On Tuesday, Missouri was one of 28 states that already had English laws in place; it passed its first official English law in 1998. Missouri State Representative Brian Nieves (R., Union), who is himself of Spanish descent, was the main proponent of the state’s new proposal, Constitutional Amendment 1.

Nieves thought the measure essential as a means of strengthening his state’s existing law, expressing concern about the fact that “there have been city-council meetings in the state of Missouri done partially in languages other than English to accommodate business owners.”

The official text of Amendment 1 states:

Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to add a statement that English shall be the language of all governmental meetings at which any public business is discussed, decided, or public policy is formulated whether conducted in person or by communication equipment including conference calls, video conferences, or Internet chat or message board?

It passed, 85.8 percent to 14.2 percent.

Oregon voters weren’t so eager to impose time limits on bilingual education  Oregon officially declared itself pro-multilingualism in 1989, though, so it was unexpected to see such an initiative even make the ballot.

Oregon taxpayers spend $200 million annually on English as a Second Language and/or bilingual instruction. One out of every eight “Limited English Proficient” students is taught almost entirely in Spanish, Russian, or Mandarin.

The result of this vast investment as of 2007: “Forty percent of the state’s school districts got half their students up to par at reading and writing English after five years in ESL classes.” Measure 58 would have limited bilingual education to a maximum of two years.

There were two odd things about the opposition to Measure 58. First, one expects to see groups like the Oregon New Sanctuary Movement, Voz Hispana, and even the Oregon Education Association on a list of opponents. But also on this list are the Oregon Democratic party, the United Church of Christ, NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon, and the Oregon State Firefighters Council.

Second, the arguments made by Measure 58’s opponents didn’t line up with their rhetoric when it came to other issues. Suddenly, teachers’ unions and their allies were concerned about unnecessary costs and local control.

Opponents of Measure 58 also claimed it would cost far more money to eliminate bilingual education than it would to continue it. Even the press thought the claim groundless”>groundless:

State officials who estimated the costs of Measure 58 don’t have much detail to support their claim that it would cost the state more than $20,000 per student to change the way those 10,000 or so students get taught.

Of course, this inflated cost estimate would be reduced by the millions currently spent for bilingual education programs which succeed primarily in preventing immigrant children from learning English.

Thanks to its willingness to adopt conservative rhetoric and publish scary numbers, tactics used to defeat a 2002 anti-bilingual education effort in Colorado, the anti-58 campaign succeeded; 53 percent of voters sided against the measure.

Moving on to House and Senate races, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R., Okla.), who offered the first two official English amendments with teeth on the Senate floor in the history of that body, easily won reelection with 57 percent of the vote. (Sen. Barack Obama voted against the Inhofe amendments both times.)

Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R., N.C.) may have introduced a bill to repeal Clinton Executive Order 13166, which required everyone receiving funds from the federal government to “take reasonable steps to provide meaningful opportunities for access” in other languages, but her fight for reelection was already uphill. She lost.

To the surprise of many, Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D., Pa.) appears to have defeated anti-illegal immigration activist Lou Barletta (Pa.-11). Kanjorski received a grade of A from my organization, English First, for his 2007-2008 voting record. (It also probably didn’t hurt that Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Joe Biden all campaigned for Kanjorski.)

Finally, Congressman Jack Murtha (D., Pa.) survived a challenge from Lt. Col. Bill Russell. Murtha’s anti-English record dates back to August 1, 1996, when Murtha voted against making English America’s official language.

Election Day was not necessarily a plus for English, but it wasn’t clearly a minus, either.

 – Jim Boulet Jr. is executive director of English First.

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