California isn’t even close to a swing state in the 2016 presidential election, but that doesn’t mean nothing is at stake for voters in the nation’s largest state.
After Tuesday’s vote, hundreds of thousands of California schoolchildren may start attending classes primarily en español, thanks to a voter referendum that would repeal the requirement that schools teach primarily in English.
California’s Proposition 58 would repeal Proposition 227, a measure that easily passed nearly two decades ago, in 1998. Proposition 227 required all public schools in the state teach “overwhelmingly” in English, with limited-English proficiency (LEP) students transitioning to fully English classes as quickly as possible.
When passed, Proposition 227 overthrew the previous norm of bilingual education. The stated intent of bilingual education is to keep non-English speakers from falling behind academically by primarily teaching in their native language, and only gradually transitioning them over several years into English instruction.
Such education was widespread in California prior to 1998, thanks to the state’s large Hispanic immigration population, but often its stated intent fell far short of reality. In numerous schools, students made very little progress in learning English and reached middle school or high school while still lacking fluency.
In 1996, dozens of students at Ninth Street School in Los Angeles were yanked from class by their parents in protest over their near-total failure to acquire English despite years of lessons. The parents demanded that their students be placed in more all-English classes in order to speed their assimilation into the English-speaking mainstream.
Opponents of Proposition 227 warned that it would destroy the academic viability of English-learning students, but if anything the opposite ended up being the case. In the town of Oceanside, administrators embraced English immersion, and found that students’ performance on state reading tests surged dramatically in just a few years. In the neighboring town of Vista, which was otherwise nearly identical, school officials fought hard to preserve bilingual education by liberally granting waivers from the law. Vista saw none of the academic gains Oceanside did, and after years of resistance, the city finally gave up and switched to full English immersion.
Across the state, the English proficiency of LEP students tripled in just a few years, and math scores rose as well.
But now, with California’s immigrant population higher than ever, the state is poised to reverse course.
Polls indicate the Proposition 58 is likely to pass. Ironically, supporters of the measure place an emphasis on English rather than foreign tongues. They argue that the bill will allow for “dual immersion” programs, where both native English and native Spanish speakers can learn in a bilingual environment. In the long run, they argue, this will increase multilingualism and provide the state with a competitive advantage.
Supporters also claim that returning to bilingual education will improve students’ English acquisition; favorable ads emphasize that Proposition 58 will ensure that “all students learn English.”
But the primary thrust of the proposition is clear: Students from non-English homes will find it far easier to have their children be primarily taught in their native tongue, while spending far less time learning English.
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