Is This the End of English-Only Education?

With Proposition 58, bilingual classrooms could be poised for a comeback nearly 20 years after California banned them.
(Photo: Kim Kulish/Getty Images)
Oct 20, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Shari Sharpe is an editorial intern at TakePart.

The first day of class at a new school can be tough, but imagine sitting in a classroom where you can’t understand the teacher, let alone the students who sit next to you—all because you don’t speak the language.

That’s been the reality for millions of kids in California since 1998, when Proposition 227, the “English Language in Public Schools” statute, went into effect. It requires that students with limited English proficiency be taught in English unless their parents request a waiver permitting them to be placed in a bilingual education class. Now the nearly 20-year-old law could be overturned on Nov. 8 if Golden State voters pass Proposition 58, a ballot initiative that would require bilingual education for all students who need it.

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Developed by California state Sen. Ricardo Lara, Prop. 58 would require schools to offer structured English immersion instruction to kids who are still learning the language. The proposed law also “encourages school districts to provide instruction programs so native English speakers can become proficient in a second language,” according to the Yes on 58 website. Nearly 20 school districts across the state, the California PTA, and the San Jose Silicon Valley and Los Angeles chambers of commerce support the measure.

Arizona passed a law banning bilingual education in 2000, as did Massachusetts in 2002. Now some experts believe the influence of Prop. 58 will also expand beyond California.

“I’m hopeful that once Proposition 58 happens that we see ourselves as having the after-party of multilingual options—or certainly an increase in other states that are interested in expanding these sort of multilingual options,” Ursula Aldana, an education professor at the University of San Francisco, told TakePart. That would move the nation “away from this English-only way of learning because we know that this just isn’t how children learn.”

Aldana, who began teaching at a middle school in Compton, California, the year Prop. 227 went into effect, experienced firsthand how “the bureaucracy of getting waivers” made it tough for educators to reach students who were still learning English. If Prop. 58 passes and schools reduce the “red tape,” Aldana said, bilingual education programs will return to the local school level.

Prop. 227 was drafted by Ron Unz, a conservative Silicon Valley multimillionaire. His push to end bilingual education in California came after the 1994 approval of Proposition 187. That law, which was declared unconstitutional in 1997 by a federal judge, sought to deny undocumented immigrants the right to public services, such as education and health care.

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Prop. 187 made undocumented parents afraid that “we’re going to rip your kids out of school and send them back, or send you back, to wherever you came,” David Carr, the principal of LA’s Promise Charter Middle School #1 in South Los Angeles, told TakePart. After the passage of Prop. 227, there was a sense of relief: “OK, no one is throwing us out, but it is going to be tougher on our kids academically here because they’re not going to have these classes for beginners where the content was taught in Spanish,” he said.

Times—and demographics—have changed in California in the past 20 years. People of color are now the majority, and nearly 45 percent of school-age children speak a language other than English at home.

“This is long overdue in a place as global as California, where we really need a multilingual society,” Lara told The New York Times on Tuesday. “We have waiting lists at the small fraction of schools that offer dual language. Why would we not want to give them the chance to expand that?”

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But a lack of high-quality bilingual programs contributed to the passage of Prop. 227, said Carr, who was teaching English language development classes at Compton High School when the law went into effect. “Bottom line is you had 40 percent of bilingual education programs in L.A. and in California [that] were working well. Sixty percent were not working well at all. They weren’t doing what they were supposed to be doing,” he said.

Some school administrators decided to follow Prop. 227 regardless of whether they agreed with it, while others did because they did not have a good bilingual education program in place. Still other administrators did not follow the law because they knew they had a good bilingual program and the data to prove it, Carr said. Their attitude was “Look, this is business as usual. We’re just going to keep moving along and doing what we’re doing. Period. End of story,” he said.

Aldana believes that if Prop. 58 passes, it will push schools to come up with solutions that better support students. It’s “already awkward enough not speaking the language,” Aldana said, but without bilingual support, students who don’t speak English are unable to engage academically.

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Before joining the faculty at the University of San Francisco, Aldana worked on Project SOL, an initiative run by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. High school students she worked with through the initiative “felt like having a couple of classes in Spanish where the teacher was really able to sit down and be like, ‘Look, do you really understand this?’ in their native language really allowed them to feel like scholars,” she said.

Not every class had to be in their mother tongue, but these students could “develop an academic identity,” Aldana said. “Isn’t that the point of school? It’s not just to come in and learn a language; it’s to develop a critical perspective, learn, and also to have a deeper sense of belonging.”

According to the most recent federal data, just 65.1 percent of Limited English Proficiency students graduated from high school in 2015, compared with 83.2 percent of students overall. But Prop. 227 didn’t just restrict students’ ability to excel, said Aldana. There is also the worry of cultural erosion for intergenerational families—and it’s not just an issue for Spanish-speaking communities. Recent U.S Census Bureau data shows that 60.4 million people over the age of five don’t speak English at home.

Aldana has worked with Korean American students in Los Angeles who are living in homes divided by language. “If you have kids who don’t know how to speak Korean but are being take care of by grandparents who only speak Korean,” a bilingual program can be positive for these families, she said.

As for Carr, he’s “for whatever works, basically. If you have a good bilingual education program, then do it.” But if Prop. 58 passes on Election Day, California will “need some serious teachers—that means your goal is to have kids functioning, reading, writing, speaking in both languages.”