English-Language Learners

Oregon Measure Would Curb Bilingual Education

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 18, 2008 2 min read

Supporters of a proposed Oregon ballot initiative that would put a two-year cap on the amount of time that English-language learners could receive instruction in their native languages or take English-as-a-Second-Language classes have gathered enough signatures to put the measure on the November ballot, state election officials announced Wednesday.

The proposed statutory amendment says that public school students who aren’t proficient in English “shall be immersed in English, not sidelined for an extended period of time, but mainstreamed with English-speaking students in the shortest time possible.”

Supporters gathered the 82,769 voter signatures needed to put the measure before voters on Nov. 4, said Carla Corbin, a compliance specialist for the elections division of the Oregon secretary of state’s office. She said the measure would be officially certified Aug. 2 and assigned a number. Currently, it is Initiative Petition 19.

Since 1998, voters in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts have approved ballot initiatives that have greatly curtailed bilingual education in those states.

After the announcement that a proposal will be put on the Oregon ballot, more than a dozen immigrant- and refugee-rights organizations in that state officially formed a coalition to fight it, according to Margot P. Kniffin, a spokeswoman for the Center for Intercultural Organizing, based in Portland, Ore.

Learning the Language

Mary Ann Zehr tackles difficult policy questions and explores learning innovations for English-language learners on her Learning the Language blog.

“Right now, students have as long as they need in [English-as-a-second-language] classes before they go into all-English classes,” Ms. Kniffin said. She said the proposal aims at “limiting the opportunity of students to succeed, in that they don’t have the time they need to learn English.”

Ms. Kniffin also said the measure isn’t written by teachers of English-language learners and thus is confusing. “It is unclear how it will affect the schools and the students. That’s a concern,” she said.

The proposal says that ELLs who enter public schools in kindergarten through 4th grade should receive “English-immersion” classes for no more than a year, that students entering in 5th grade through 8th grade should receive such classes for no more than a year and a half, and that students entering in 9th through 12th grades shouldn’t receive such classes for more than two years.

But the proposal’s ambiguous wording--particularly its use of the term “English-immersion programs,” has caused confusion and some concern among advocates. The proposal doesn’t define what it means by “English-immersion.” In state ballot measures in Arizona, California, and Massachusetts, the term “structured English immersion” or “sheltered English immersion” has been used to describe programs that use only English for instruction. The Oregon initiative implies that English-immersion programs include instruction in students’ native languages.

The proposal defines a “non-English-speaking student” as a student whose “primary language is a language other than English and the student is not capable of being taught in English.”

The one-page text of the measure also says the proposed two-year limit on bilingual education is meant “to insure the cessation of the long-term ESL programs currently in use in many of the public schools in Oregon...”

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