Capitol Alert

Bilingual education back on ballot 18 years after voters rejected it

Growing up the son of Mexican immigrant parents in Los Angeles, Ricardo Lara took pride in being bilingual. But it was also a means of survival.

From a young age, the Bell Gardens Democrat, who learned English through bilingual school programs, served as a family dictionary, translating doctor’s visits and tax documents for his Spanish-speaking mother and father.

“I was the sole connection to the culture for my parents,” Lara said.

But he felt something else entirely in 1998, by then a 23-year-old student at San Diego State University, when California voters passed Proposition 227. This tectonic shift for English learners in the state mandated they be taught in English only, rather than in the bilingual programs long favored by many educators, which instructed students primarily in their native language while they gradually picked up enough English to enter mainstream classes.

“There was a shame being cast on those of us who spoke multiple languages,” Lara said. “It was a racist undertone when it came to Spanish speakers. That’s how I felt.”

Eighteen years later, Lara is leading a push to reverse a law that he said put a “handcuff” on multilingual education in California when a globalizing economy has made knowing two or more languages a valuable asset.

Placed on the Nov. 8 ballot by legislators in 2014, Proposition 58 will ask voters to remove the restrictions of Proposition 227. Supporters want to make it easier for schools to establish bilingual programs for both English learners and native English speakers seeking to gain fluency in a foreign language.

Under the measure, school districts will be required to consult with the community on how English learners should be taught, and provide any program, including the existing English-only classes, that enough families request. After nearly two decades of strict statewide standards with limited alternatives, parents and schools would have an array of options – while the Legislature, freed from Proposition 227’s voter decree, would regain a voice in determining future policy around bilingual education.

If it can cut through the noise of an election season heavy with 17 ballot measures, Proposition 58 may be a moment of political déjà vu, as voters again debate the best method for getting California’s 1.4 million English learners – more than a fifth of all public school students in the state – to proficiency.

Supporters of Proposition 227 warn that the new measure is merely an effort to bring back the ineffective bilingual education that Californians already once rejected.

“It really is sort of like a sneaky trick by politicians in Sacramento,” said Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley software entrepreneur who sponsored Proposition 227.

More than 60 percent of voters in 1998 approved Proposition 227, which required that English learners be placed in a year of special, intensive English instruction before moving into regular classrooms, though it allowed parents to apply for a waiver if they believed their children would learn better in a bilingual program.

The campaign was largely a fight about Spanish speakers, who make up more than 80 percent of English learners in California schools.

In the wake of Proposition 187 in 1994, which banned undocumented immigrants from receiving public benefits, and Proposition 209 in 1996, outlawing affirmative action, the measure felt for some like an attack on their ethnic roots. Spanish-language news promos that ran on the Los Angeles Univision station linked the three initiatives and warned that “the dreams of thousands of Hispanic families are being destroyed.”

But many of the most vocal supporters of Proposition 227 were Latinos frustrated that their children were getting caught in essentially Spanish-only classrooms where they never became adept at English. Jaime Escalante, the late East Los Angeles high school teacher who rose to national fame as the subject of the film “Stand and Deliver,” served as honorary chairman of the campaign.

“Today, many immigrants work long hours yet barely earn enough to feed their children,” proponents cautioned in television ads. “Unless schools teach children to read and write English, they may be trapped in the same hard life.”

In the following decade, the proportion of English learners enrolled in bilingual education programs dropped from 30 percent to 5 percent. Similar measures followed in Massachusetts and Arizona.

Advocates of Proposition 227 scored another victory when standardized test scores among English learners rose in the first few years after the law passed, an achievement touted nationally on the front page of newspapers from The New York Times to the San Jose Mercury News.

That success inspired a change of heart among some former opponents, including Ken Noonan, the founder of the California Association of Bilingual Educators who was then the superintendent of schools in Oceanside.

After Proposition 227 passed, Noonan strictly interpreted the law, switching quickly to English-only programs and approving few waivers for students. His revelatory moment that it was working, he said, came when he visited a classroom and read with one of the young students. Noonan had the boy select a book he had never read before, and though his English was accented, he understood perfectly when Noonan asked him the meaning of a sentence.

“He told me, clear as a bell,” Noonan said. “It wasn’t just the phonetics.”

Noonan credits Proposition 227 for the growing enrollment of Latino students in California colleges. He said he is “appalled” that politicians could put that progress at risk by returning English learners to “unnecessary” bilingual programs when they can learn their native languages and cultures at home and in their communities.

“It’s our job to provide the language and the culture of the nation, which is English,” he said. “Why screw up a good thing? This is working. This is working so well.”

Research is mixed on what most benefits English learners.

Christine Rossell, a professor of political science at Boston University who has studied bilingual programs in half a dozen states, is a longtime critic.

“Bilingual education is not evil,” she said. “It’s just the least effective approach. So the question is how much choice should parents have?”

But a study from Stanford University in 2014, which examined reclassification and academic outcomes for English learners in one large, unidentified California school district over 12 years, concluded that opponents of bilingual education may be taking a shortsighted view. It found that while students learning in an all-English context pick up the language faster initially, more students in multilingual programs acquire English over time and perform slightly better on standardized tests.

Ilana Umansky, the lead author on the study, who is now an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Oregon, said students learning in their native language can develop a fundamental understanding of academic concepts that they simply translate to English later on.

“Languages transfer. So if you have a strong foundation in your first language, you do better at acquiring another language,” Umansky said. “One of the dangers of monolingual education is that many of these kids who enter school with this asset lose their native language.”

Researchers have observed a rapid deterioration of Spanish vocabulary and grammatical skill among children who have little formal support or opportunity to use their first language outside of the home.

That’s the unfortunate consequence of the current law, according to Lara and other proponents of Proposition 58, who argue that it has put California at a tremendous disadvantage by squandering the natural reserve of talent in the state’s diverse multilingual culture.

Studies show that bilingual workers earn more; they also show that it is easier for young children to pick up a new language.

Proposition 58 supporters say their goal is to maintain existing standards of English proficiency for all students while giving school districts and parents the option of bringing back bilingual alternatives to the English-only system.

“We know it’s not for every family, but we know it’s best for English learners,” said Jan Gustafson-Corea, CEO of the California Association for Bilingual Education.

Her hope is the measure’s passage will encourage districts to launch more multilingual programs such as dual immersion, which generally combines native speakers of both English and a foreign language in the same classroom for bilingual instruction across all subjects. They currently exist in about 3 percent of California schools.

“It’s not just learning another language. It’s learning in that language,” Gustafson-Corea said. “It really is a win-win.”

It remains to be seen whether voters will embrace the idea. There is no public polling on Proposition 58, and neither side has raised much money. (The Association of California School Administrators and the United Food and Commercial Workers have donated a combined $125,000 to the yes campaign.)

Unz, who primarily financed Proposition 227, said he might eventually step in to support the opposition. He is skeptical of the dual immersion programs that proponents envision as the future of multilingual education in California, which usually begin emphasizing the foreign language and phase in more English over time.

“A very uncharitable way of looking at these programs is that Anglo parents are using the Latino children as unpaid tutors for their children,” he said. “They don’t really care as much whether the Latino children learn or not.”

He is also wary of what the Legislature may do if the requirements of Proposition 227 are rolled back. He believes bilingual educators and their allies are setting the stage to someday bring back mandatory bilingual programs like the kind that his initiative dismantled.

Lara dismisses that notion. He said the change will merely enable lawmakers to modify that section of the education code to respond to possible developments ahead without having to go back to the voters every time.

“I’m just moving us to the next generation,” he said. “There’s so many innovative methods. Who knows what the future is going to hold?”

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff