In an effort to help the flood of Spanish-speaking immigrants and their families, the experiment allowed children to learn in their mother tongue. But voters decided overwhelmingly to ditch bilingualism on Tuesday, with about 61 per cent backing the ballot initiative known as Proposition 227. Instead, children who require assistance will get one year of intensive English, and will then be put into English-only classrooms. There is some provision to maintain bilingual education in special circumstances, but in general the new rule is: English only.
This revolution was led by Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley millionaire. Mr Unz, 37, who founded the financial software firm Wall Street Analytics, is an intriguing figure. The son of a Jewish Ukrainian immigrant, he studied quantum physics with Stephen Hawking at Cambridge. Mr Unz believes that the scheme discriminates against immigrants by dumping them in a linguistic limbo. "America is successful because we have assimilated immigrants," he says.
But Proposition 227 was by no means supported only by the English-speakers of California. The measure got considerable backing from the state's substantial Hispanic minority, since many feel that bilingual education has shortchanged their children. Nearly a quarter of California's children are in bilingual classes, yet each year only 6 per cent transfer to classes taught in English.
The measure was opposed by all four of the state's candidates for governor, the President and the whole of the education establishment. Its opponents, including Hispanic television magnate Jerrold Perenchio, spent some $1m to defeat it, yet the measure passed with honours.
There is likely to be a legal challenge, and President Bill Clinton pledged yesterday to reinstate the measure. But it will have an impact across America wherever bilingualism is used.
Once again Californians - two-thirds of whom will be Hispanic by 2040 - have shown themselves to be catalysts for social and political change, emphasising how important it is which party wins control of the state's key posts in this year's general elections.
The results of the primaries mean that Republican Dan Lungren will now face Gray Davis in the November gubernatorial election. Davis, a moderate, pragmatic character, is the state's lieutenant governor. Though he was vastly outspent by his wealthy Democrat rivals for the candidacy, he won a convincing victory based on his experience. The Governor, Republican Pete Wilson, is not allowed to stand for a third term. "My friends, this is truly an experience money can't buy," Mr Davis declared in a victory speech. But while his win was declared a victory against cash, Mr Davis himself spent $12m.
Some of the warmest cheers of the night were reserved for Jerry Brown, former Governor of California and long-time Presidential candidate. He was elected mayor of Oakland, a gritty, working class city across the bay from San Fransisco. "I've been in a lot of elections, but it's been 20 years since I've been in a victory," he said. His New Age, hippyish 1970s populism first came to prominence when he was governor from 1975- 1983.