English-Language Learners

Immigration Spawns Bills Similar to Proposition 227

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 18, 2001 6 min read
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Taking their cue in part from California and Arizona voters, lawmakers in three states have proposed overhauling their bilingual education programs.

Bills have been introduced in Massachusetts, Oregon, and Rhode Island this legislative session to replace bilingual education with English-only instruction. In recent years, voters in California and Arizona have passed state ballot initiatives aimed at doing exactly that.

The Massachusetts and Oregon bills call for students with limited English proficiency, also referred to as English-language learners, to be educated through “sheltered-English immersion during a temporary transition period not normally intended to exceed one year.” The same language is contained both in Proposition 227, the measure curtailing bilingual education passed by California voters in June 1998, and Proposition 203, a similar law passed by Arizona voters last November.

Meanwhile, the Oregon bill quotes Proposition 227’s rationale for English-only instruction. But rather than require “sheltered English immersion,” it prescribes that any school receiving state funds for language- acquisition programs use an English-as-a-second-language, or ESL, approach.

The first Proposition 227-like bill proposed in a state legislature, according to observers, was introduced by Sen. Guy W. Glodus, a Democrat, in Massachusetts last year. But it was filed too late to be considered.

But only this spring have bills that lift wording directly from Proposition 227 been proposed in Rhode Island and Oregon. Mr. Glodus again this year introduced a Proposition 227-like bill into the state legislature in Massachusetts.

Spreading Debate

Massachusetts has many districts with well-established bilingual education programs—where students are taught some subjects in their native languages while learning English. That situation opens the door for controversy on how well the programs have succeeded. In Rhode Island and Oregon, according to their departments of education, such programs are not widespread.

Only one school district in Rhode Island—the 26,300-student Providence system—offers bilingual education. In Oregon, few districts do. The more prevalent method of instruction for immigrant students in those states is English as a second language, in which students are taught primarily in English, or “sheltered English,” in which subjects are taught in simplified English, state officials say.

The spread of the debate over bilingual education to states with emerging immigrant populations is evidence that “bilingual reform has become one of the fastest-growing policy issues in the country,” said Don Soifer, the executive vice president of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank opposed to bilingual education.

“The results from California speak for themselves,” Mr. Soifer added. He credited the passage of Proposition 227 in California with an increase in standardized-test scores among LEP students in the state last year. California officials and supporters of bilingual education have, in fact, questioned whether Proposition 227 was the cause of the increased scores. (“Cause of Higher Calif. Scores Sore Point in Bilingual Ed. Debate,” Sept. 6, 2000.)

Jaime A. Zapata, the public-affairs director for the Washington-based National Association for Bilingual Education, countered that the spread of the debate over bilingual education to new states merely speaks of lawmakers taking advantage of “political opportunism” and demonstrates a “continued misconception about what education of limited-English-proficient children really means.”

Out-of-State Experience

In Oregon and Rhode Island, lawmakers and their aides said they proposed English-only instruction because of reports that LEP students in their states are not faring well academically, as well as a recognition that the enrollment of such students is growing. And they believe that Proposition 227thus, English immersionis working in California.

“The inspiration to do something came from seeing there was a gap in test scores between LEP students and other minority students and the rest of Oregon students,” said Gabe A. Winslow, a legislative assistant to Sen. Charles Starr, an Oregon Republican who introduced the Proposition 227-like bill there. “The method [proposed] was because of what’s been going on in other states,” he said. “Test scores for foreign-language-minority students have risen since Proposition 227 has passed in California.”

But it is unclear how closely lawmakers have looked at how instruction is delivered to LEP students in their own states.

For example, Mr. Winslow said that “all schools with LEP students offer a bilingual education program, where actual subjects are taught by students in the native language.”

But in fact, very few Oregon districts provide programs that meet such a description, said Lyn Horine, the grants and contracts coordinator for the Oregon education department. The state provides certification only in ESL, not in bilingual education, for teachers who instruct students with limited English. It’s not unusual, however, for schools to provide immigrant students with a paraprofessional to work with them in their native language in the context of a regular classroom, Ms. Horine added.

Rep. Myrna C. George, a Democrat who introduced the bill borrowing language from Proposition 227 in the Rhode Island House, acknowledged it was not until after she introduced that legislation that she learned Providence was the only district in her state providing bilingual education.

But since Mr. Starr and Ms. George introduced their bills, local educators have provided them with an earful about the education of LEP students locally.

“I was heavily lobbied by some administrators from the Providence school department with about 50 people from the Hispanic community in the hallways of the Statehouse,” Ms. George said.

And in Oregon, an estimated 200 people attended a public hearing the Senate education committee held on the anti-bilingual education bill, according to Sen. Ryan Deckert, a Democrat on the committee who opposes the measure. Among more than 50 people who testified on the subject of bilingual education, only one supported the bill to replace bilingual education with English immersion.

Looking to the Future

All the bills using language from Proposition 227 proposed this year are pending in legislative committees and have not yet been taken up for a floor vote.

In Oregon, Mr. Winslow predicted that Mr. Starr’s bill would die in committee as other issues are likely to take precedence over it this legislative session. Nevertheless, the resolve of lawmakers in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Oregon to promote English-only instruction for immigrant students remains strong.

In Massachusetts, for example, Mr. Glodus plans to try to put his measure on a statewide referendum ballot, if it doesn’t pass in the legislature, according to an aide.

And Ms. George said she doesn’t plan to back down on her bill to replace bilingual education with English-only instruction.

“I’m against kids not learning English first” in U.S. schools, she said. “Our function is to teach English and to teach it as effectively as possible. It’s the one thing that unites this country. It’s the engine of the world.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2001 edition of Education Week as Immigration Spawns Bills Similar to Proposition 227

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