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Is California Ready to Tear Down Barriers to Bilingual Education?

Nelson Flores
Monday, October 10, 2016
English Language Learners

In 1998, California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 227, also known as “The English in Public Schools Statue.” The statue requires all schools to provide English Learners (ELs) with a structured English immersion program that was expected to last no more than a year. The only way for a bilingual education program to be offered in place of structured English immersion was through waivers signed by parents requesting bilingual education for students who either (1) were already English proficient, (2) were at least 10 years old, or (3) had special needs identified after having participated in structured English immersion for at least 30 days. Schools with 20 or more such parental waivers for one grade level were permitted to continue to offer bilingual education. As a direct result of the passage of this initiative, the number of ELs in bilingual education programs in California declined significantly from 30% of all ELs in the state to 8% of all ELs.

A variety of factors contributed to the passage of Proposition 227. For one, the proposition followed on the coattails of Proposition 187, which sought to ban undocumented immigrants from receiving public services such as public schooling. Though a permanent injunction prevented Proposition 187 from being implemented, it helped to foment anti-immigrant sentiment in California that led to a positive reception of attempts to prohibit bilingual education. In addition, Proposition 227 had a powerful advocate in Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz who both provided financial resources to the campaign and acted as spokesperson. In addition, the quality of bilingual education programs in California varied widely, with many Latino communities publicly demanding changes.

Eighteen years later, there is a new initiative on California ballots that seeks to undo a major provision of Proposition 227. Proposition 58, also known as “the California non-English languages allowed in Public Education Act” will continue to mandate that districts minimally offer structured English immersion to ELs. It would, however, eliminate the provision that requires annual parental waivers for districts to offer bilingual education programs. Instead, it would provide districts the decision-making power to offer structured English immersion or bilingual education without requiring annual parental waivers. There are no mandates for bilingual education in Proposition 58. Yet, there are also no longer barriers for districts who would like to implement bilingual education programs.

A variety of factors has contributed to the attempt to remove barriers to bilingual education in California, including a growing research base that demonstrates the effectiveness of bilingual education programs in improving the educational outcomes not only of ELs but also non-ELs who participate in these programs. Indeed, a study of bilingual education programs in an urban California district indicates that Latino ELs who participate in bilingual programs are more likely to be reclassified as fully English proficient than their peers who participated in structured English immersion programs. Another study in California found that Latino non-ELs in bilingual programs perform comparably to their peers in mainstream classrooms while also learning how to read and write in Spanish. This research, alongside growing recognition of the importance of bilingualism for engaging in our increasingly globalized world, has led many to question the barriers put into place to prevent the growth of these programs by Proposition 227.

In the end, Proposition 58 is a win-win for school districts. Any district who has developed high-quality structured English immersion programs that have been shown to improve the educational achievement of ELs will continue to be able to implement such programs. Similarly, those who have struggled to successfully create effective structured English immersion programs and/or who believe that bilingualism is an important skill for schools to support will be able to develop and implement bilingual education programs without the onerous hurdle of having to get annual parental waivers. In the first state that developed a Seal of Biliteracy to place on diplomas, giving districts the flexibility to develop programs that will best prepare students to receive this Seal of Biliteracy seems like a no-brainer.