Larry Gordon/EdSource Today
Candidates at state PTA convention debate. From left: Delaine Eastin, John Chiang (on crutch for sprained ankle), Travis Allen & Antonio Villaraigosa.

It has been a quarter century since a Republican candidate for governor has argued that taxpayer funds should not be spent on educating undocumented children.

That issue was a key and controversial part of Proposition 187 in 1994, the initiative that sought to cut a range of benefits to undocumented immigrants, including schoolchildren. The initiative was enthusiastically endorsed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson and triggered the steady downward slide of Republicans in California that makes it nearly impossible for them to win a statewide office.

As the libertarian Cato Institute concluded in a 2016 assessment, Prop. 187 is “what turned California blue.” Until then, Latinos’ political allegiances were nearly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, at least in  gubernatorial races. But Wilson’s support for the initiative turned Latinos overwhelmingly against the GOP. Wilson’s unpopularity among Latinos and other ethnic minorities in California “tainted the Republican Party and has lingered for decades after the 1994 vote,” the Cato report observed.

That is why it is so notable that Assemblyman Travis Allen, R-Huntington Beach, a GOP candidate for governor, is making a similar argument to Wilson’s, which could only make the GOP’s prospects of winning a statewide race even more elusive.

According to the recent UC Berkeley IGS Poll, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, is the frontrunner, with Republican John Cox running second and Allen right behind him. Following them is former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. If the polls are correct, Allen thus appears to have a shot at making it to the November runoff between the top two vote-getters in the June 5 primary.

“California taxpayer dollars should only be used for the benefit of California citizens,” Allen said in an interview with EdSource. “When our schools are ranked among the lowest in the nation, it makes absolutely no sense to provide taxpayer dollars for people who are not even in our state legally.”

He reiterated that position during the most recent gubernatorial debate in San Jose on May 8 in response to a question about whether undocumented children should be able to benefit from state-subsidized preschool. “California’s education system is for the benefit of California’s citizens first,” Allen said.

Cox, Allen’s Republican opponent, has not come out against educating undocumented students in the state’s public schools. But like Cox, Allen supports construction of a border wall and opposes California’s “sanctuary state” legislation.

The only reason it appears to make sense politically for Allen to oppose underwriting the education of undocumented students is to mobilize the pro-Trump GOP base in California in his drive to edge out Cox in the primary. It almost certainly wouldn’t help him get the votes he would need to defeat a Democrat in November’s general election.

Allen has not publicly addressed the fact that schools have no choice but to open their doors to undocumented students.  Under the law, states have a constitutional obligation to provide them with a free public education.

In the landmark 1982 Plyler v. Doe ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court maintained that under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, states can’t deny students a free public education based solely on their immigration status. Even though Prop. 187 was overwhelmingly approved by voters in 1994, that ruling was one of the main reasons the initiative got bogged down in constitutional challenges and was never implemented.

“Proposition 187, as drafted, is not constitutional on its face,” U.S. District Judge Mariana Pfaelzer declared in her opinion at the time.

Efforts by other states since then to circumvent Plyler have similarly run aground in the courts. That is why it is hard to imagine that Allen is serious about trying to keep undocumented students out of the state’s public schools. However, his call to do so seems consistent with the slogan of his campaign “It’s time to take back California.” That rallying cry echoes the “Save Our State” slogan that drove voters to support Prop. 187.

Whatever his motivation, if Allen is one of the top two vote-getters on June 5, it would not change the party’s marginal political status in a state where Latino voters — the majority of whom are Democrats — will make up an increasingly higher share of the electorate in years to come.

Latinos comprised about 21 percent of those who turned out to vote in California the 2016 election. That figure is set to rise to 29 percent by 2040.

“The California Republican Party’s decision to represent the anti-immigration wing of the American electorate in the early 1990s destroyed that state’s GOP for at least a generation in exchange for winning one election in 1994 and a symbolic victory on Proposition 187 that didn’t actually change policy,” the Cato Institute analysis concluded. “That’s a bad deal that the Republican Party should avoid making again.”

It may do so again in a few weeks if voters on June 5 select Travis Allen as the GOP candidate to face a Democrat in the November elections. The difference between now and when Wilson ran in 1994 is that Wilson easily won re-election, whereas Allen has virtually no chance of winning in 2018.

But Wilson’s was a Pyrrhic victory. It severely eroded the GOP’s ability to win any statewide office. That is a handicap that is likely to continue if GOP candidates espouse policies antithetical to the views of a large share of California’s ethnic voters and to a majority of all voters in the state.

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