Bilingual Education Poised for a Comeback in California Schools

By Corey Mitchell — October 11, 2016 7 min read
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Nearly 20 years after voting to restrict bilingual education in a state with more than 1 million schoolchildren who don’t speak English as their first language, California voters appear poised to reverse that ban.

Next month, voters will decide the fate of a statewide ballot question that would bring an end to the restrictions of Proposition 227 and close out California’s official era of English-only instruction.

The upcoming vote on Proposition 58 has rekindled a long-standing debate over the best way to help California’s 1.4 million English-learners—who account for more than 20 percent of all public school students in the state—learn the language: Should English-learners be taught in English only, rather than in the bilingual programs backed by many educators and researchers?

Political and public sentiment on the issue has shifted significantly in the years since Proposition 227 was on the ballot and public resentments toward California’s large immigrant population were running high. Enthusiasm and demand for students who can read, write, and speak in more than one language have spiked in California and elsewhere. California is also the birthplace of the seal of biliteracy, a national movement to recognize and honor high school graduates who demonstrate fluency in two or more languages. Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia now offer biliteracy seals. That stands in sharp contrast to 1998, when more than 60 percent of voters backed Prop. 227—a measure that allowed bilingual education only for students whose parents signed a waiver to “opt in.” Many districts dropped their bilingual programs entirely. Besides California, only Arizona and Massachusetts have English-only mandates written into law.

Now, with widespread support and little organized public opposition, Proposition 58 would eliminate the need for parental waivers and allow districts to offer new language programs in consultation with parents. The California Chamber of Commerce, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, and dozens of union and municipal leaders are backing the measure.

Ricardo Lara, a Democratic state senator from the Los Angeles area, is leading the push to pass Prop. 58. A native Spanish speaker, Lara learned his second language in English-only immersion classes. Lara said several of his siblings excelled in bilingual education after struggling with English-only instruction. He wants more families in the state to have both options; many residents now view knowing two or more languages as an asset, Lara said.

“It’s an attempt to right a tremendous wrong,” Lara said. “We really imposed a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to English-learners.”

Changing Tides

If Prop. 58 passes, schools will be able to more easily establish bilingual programs for English-learners and native English speakers seeking to learn a foreign language. Under the measure, districts would determine how ELLs should be taught and provide any program, including the existing English-only classes, that enough families request.

But the few public opponents there are argue that the ballot measure’s success would amount to a return to the ineffective, bilingual education programs that Californians already rejected. At the time of Prop. 227, many schools’ approach to teaching ELLs was to use transitional bilingual education, with teachers providing instruction initially only in the home language—typically Spanish—with a gradual shift to English.

Ronald Unz, the Silicon Valley software developer who financed and led the Prop. 227 campaign, is the face of the opposition to efforts to repeal it.

“The problem is, bilingual education doesn’t work now, it’s never worked in the past, and despite its advocates’ extreme ideological commitment to that policy, it’s just totally unsuccessful,” Unz said.

Many of Prop. 227’s supporters were dissatisfied that many Latino students were relegated to Spanish-only classrooms for years. More recent, research-backed bilingual education models often take a different approach, such as mixing native English speakers with English-learners in dual-language classrooms in which students learn English and a second language. Supporters of Prop 58 say their goal is to maintain existing standards of English proficiency for all students while giving more districts and families the option to abandon the English-only system.

“We’re in a different place, and Ron Unz just keeps saying the same thing over and over again. We have progressed” said Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, the executive director of Californians Together, a Long Beach-based nonprofit that sparked the growth of the seal of biliteracy and backs Prop. 58. “The programs are different, they’re much more comprehensive, much more coherent and based on much stronger research.”

Unz said: “I haven’t changed my views in 18 years. The difference is that the evidence was overwhelming that I was correct.”

Aaron Ko, 6, studies in a Cantonese immersion classroom at West Portal Elementary School in San Francisco. A statewide measure on the November ballot would reverse nearly two decades of restrictions on bilingual education programs in California’s public schools.

In the early 2000s, Unz and other Prop. 227 proponents felt vindicated when ELLs’ test scores in English proficiency and reading rose in the first few years after the law passed. That success sparked a change of heart for some supporters of traditional bilingual education, including Kenneth Noonan, a former superintendent in Oceanside, Calif.

As a one-time bilingual educator, Noonan opposed the English-only requirements of Prop. 227. But after seeing students in many of his district’s English-only classes learning faster than peers in bilingual classes, he began to back the approach.

Noonan, a former president of the state board of education, co-signed, along with Unz, the argument against Proposition 58 that appears in the state’s voter-information guide.

“If students don’t develop academic language, by the time they reach high school, they’re sunk,” said Noonan, referring to the more sophisticated English that is specific to academic disciplines, such as science and mathematics.

The Fate of English-Learners

California has an uneven track record when it comes to educating English-learners. The U.S. departments of Education and Justice have repeatedly scrutinized the state’s efforts to educate English-learners.

Last year, the Justice Department reported that California had failed to deal with reports from public schools indicating that more than 20,000 English-learner students, a small slice of the statewide total, had not received proper instruction in the English language and in other subjects. The allegations covered periods dating to the 2007-08 school year.

Under a federal settlement announced last month, the state education agency agreed to new training and monitoring procedures to ensure language services for ELLs meet requirements of the federal Equal Educational Opportunities Act.

Unz said Prop. 58 would not make the needs of students learning English a priority, but would mostly benefit affluent and middle-class parents of native English speakers who want their children in dual-immersion classes where they are exposed to other languages at a young age.

Harmeet Dhillon, a spokeswoman for the California Republican Party, agreed that ELLs would suffer under Prop. 58.

“In our hard-pressed public schools, what’s going to happen is that these students are going to be shunted into a separate track for education that is inferior,” she said. “It’s common sense that the faster you’re required to learn the mainstream language, the better off you are.”

Politics or Progress?

But some of the most recent research doesn’t back that argument.

A 2014 study from Stanford University researchers found that by the time they reached 5th grade, ELLs in San Francisco’s public schools were equally proficient in English whether they had been in a bilingual program or had received all their instruction in English. And while the ELLs in bilingual education programs lagged in earlier grades, they scored similarly on the state’s academic tests and had virtually the same rates of reclassification to English-fluent status by 5th grade as students in English-immersion.

The study tracked 18,000 English-learners who entered kindergarten between 2002 and 2010 and whose parents had signed waivers to bypass the restrictions of Proposition 227.


“Despite what some of the researchers say, they’re saying the same thing now they said 20 years ago,” Unz said. “People are sometimes very committed to a certain ideological perspective. They retain that ideological perspective even if every shred of evidence is on the other side. That’s exactly what you see here.”

Lara, the California senator behind Prop. 58, said the measure represents progress, not the past.

“The electorate has changed, attitudes have changed,” Lara said."We’re going to give control back to the educators and administrators. What we saw with Prop. 227 was noneducators dictating pedagogy.”

Education Week special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza contributed to this report.

Coverage of policy, government and politics, and systems leadership is supported in part a grant from by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2016 edition of Education Week as Bilingual Education Poised for a Comeback in California Schools


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