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Bilingual Education Set to Return to California Schools

By Corey Mitchell — November 15, 2016 3 min read
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With voters’ decision to repeal English-only instruction in California, public schools across the state now have more power to operate bilingual and dual-language programs.

The passage of Proposition 58 last week means that public schools are now free of any restrictions on using various forms of bilingual education, most notably for teaching the state’s 1.5 million English-language learners.

The measure—which was overwhelmingly approved by voters—essentially rolled back a law passed 18 years ago that required “English-only” instruction for all students, including those who aren’t native speakers of the language.

Prop. 58 will take effect in July, while educators and school leaders await guidance from the state education department and state board of education on how to implement it.

Supporters of the measure say they don’t expect an immediate wave of new bilingual programs in the state.

The California Assocation for Bilingual Education is urging districts to take a slow-and-steady approach to build programs.Schools that aren’t already months, or years, into the planning process shouldn’t try to start a program next fall, said Jan Gustafson-Corea, the organization’s chief executive officer.

“It’s not the kind of thing you can implement [in a] month,” Gustafson-Corea said.

Finding Teachers

Reviewing research and studying different models—dual-language immersion and one-way immersion among them—are crucial first steps toward building a program, Gustafson-Corea said.

But the biggest concern is finding bilingual teachers.

Districts have struggled for decades to find bilingual instructors, even in immigrant-rich communities where English is not the first language for many students. California’s English-learners are overwhelmingly native Spanish-speakers.

Around the country, recent upticks in the percentage of ELLs and demand for dual-language programs for their English-speaking peers have placed a premium on bilingual instructors.

Prior to the passage of Proposition 227 in 1998—the voter-approved measure that imposed the restrictions on bilingual education—California may have been flush with bilingual educators.

To get the pipeline flowing again, districts should look to tap potential teaching candidates in the state who have graduated with biliteracy seals in the past few years, said Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, the executive director of Californians Together, a Long Beach-based nonprofit that backed the passage of Prop. 58. In the interim, districts should survey staff members to find holdovers from the previous era who teach English-only courses and help those people refresh their credentials. Helping newcomer bilingual teachers earn certification is another must, Spiegel-Coleman said.

The new law represents a significant shift in Californians’ sentiment on bilingual education.

In 1998, more than 60 percent of voters backed Prop. 227, which essentially put an end to many bilingual education programs in public schools across California. Voters overwhelmingly backed Prop. 58, with nearly 75 percent supporting it.

“Our voters have made strong decisions that really honor the background, culture, and language of our students and families,"Gustafson-Corea said.

California became the first state to recognize students who graduate from high school with a demonstrated proficiency in two or more languages—a step that nearly half the states have since followed.

Middle-Class Demand

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

White, middle-class, English-speaking parents who want their children to learn Spanish are driving the demand for new dual-language programs, Unz said.

“I really would be surprised if there’s much expansion of bilingual programs above and beyond that,” he said

What Unz does foresee is more English-learner students enrolled in dual-language classrooms, sometimes against their parents’ wishes.

He does take solace in the fact that Prop. 58, like Prop. 227 before it, mandates that all students become proficient in English, no matter what program their schools choose.

Coverage of policy, government and politics, and systems leadership is supported in part a grant from by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, at www.broadfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2016 edition of Education Week as Bilingual Education Set to Return to California Schools

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