A new bill that seeks to repeal California’s long-running restrictions on bilingual education may be only the most recent signal of a shifting political climate around English-language-learner instruction in that state.
California drew national attention in 1998 when voters passed Proposition 227, a ballot measure that severely restricted the availability of bilingual education for students in favor of English-only immersion programs for English-learners. The new bill, introduced Feb. 20 by state Sen. Ricardo Lara, seeks to put the issue to voters on the 2016 ballot.
Educators and policy experts in California say the bill’s introduction comes as changing demographics within the state, new and robust research on the subject, and shifting political dynamics have begun to transform parents’ and educators’ views on multilingual education.
“This is not the same debate as it was 15 years ago,” said Robert Linquanti, the project director for English-learner evaluation and accountability support at WestEd, a San Francisco-based research group.
“Bilingual education generally has always been controversial in the United States because of its association with national identity, multiculturalism, and immigration,” Mr. Linquanti said.
But in recent years, acceptance of multilingualism has grown, especially in California, which educates about 1.35 million English-learners, argued Mr. Linquanti.
For instance, in 2011, state legislators approved a seal of biliteracy that high school graduates can earn for their diplomas to indicate fluency in two or more languages. Lawmakers in New York, Illinois, and Texas have followed suit, and as of press time, a similar bill in New Mexico awaited Gov. Susana Martinez’s signature.
In addition, said Patricia Gándara, a research professor of education in the graduate school of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a co-director of the Civil Rights Project there, “we’ve seen a tremendous growth in the numbers of dual-language programs popping up in California, which now has more than any other state.”
Dual-language programs match English-speaking students with a cohort of English-learners and teach the curriculum in both languages to help all the students achieve bilingualism and biliteracy.
Such programs have been on the rise nationwide for the past decade, and now number around 30,000, even after transitional-bilingual-education programs diminished after pro-English-immersion ballot initiatives in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts.
Transitional-bilingual-education programs provide instruction in English-learners’ native languages, with separate English classes, before transitioning students into all-English instruction.
Ms. Gándara believes that now a move to repeal Proposition 227 could gain traction.
“Californians have become comfortable with the fact that we have a very multicultural, multilingual population,” she said.
Sen. Lara, the Democratic sponsor of the repeal bill, agreed.
“Given the diversity of California, the vast body of research on the benefits of language-immersion programs, and the growing popularity of these schools, clearly public perception has changed on the value of multilingual education programs,” he said in an email to Education Week.
The move could have positive economic impacts, he wrote: “California has the largest economy in the country, and in order to keep climbing, its workforce needs to be fully prepared with the appropriate skill sets.”
In a recent survey of business leaders, primarily in California, that Ms. Gándara helped conduct, respondents across sectors valued bilingual employees and candidates more than monolingual ones—even for upper-management jobs, which has historically not been the case.
On the other hand, Ron K. Unz, the Silicon Valley businessman who largely financed and campaigned for the passage of Proposition 227, said he believes now more than ever that the law should remain on the books.
He points to a rise in state standardized-test scores in reading and math from 1998 to 2002 for English-language learners statewide as evidence that Proposition 227 had a positive impact on students. But researchers say analyses on the impact of Proposition 227 are more nuanced, and the data show the law had little or no effect on student outcomes.
“As far as student outcomes, they have not been better at all in the state of California by any measure—standardized-test scores, dropout rates, high-school-completion rates,” said Grace McField, a researcher from California State University in San Marcos. Her book The Miseducation of English Learners, released this year, examines the impact of Proposition 227.
In fact, research has found that more important than the language in which instruction is delivered is the quality of the language instruction, said Mr. Linquanti, of WestEd.
“The answer [about which language-instruction method is better] really depends on what the preferences of the community are, what the instructional capabilities are of the teachers, and what support there is for it,” he said.
Ms. Gándara, from UCLA, who would like to see Mr. Lara’s bill pass the Democrat-controlled legislature, said “it’s a real mistake for the general public to ban certain kinds of educational practices for all kids.”
“Do I think [Proposition 227] should be repealed?” she asked. “It never should have been voted on in the first place.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 2014 edition of Education Week as As Calif. Political Winds Shift, Bill Seeks Prop. 227 Rollback