Give students and parents more choice

Karina Gutierrez teaches a third grade class in Spanish at the Thomas Edison Language Institute, a bilingual school in Carmichael.
Karina Gutierrez teaches a third grade class in Spanish at the Thomas Edison Language Institute, a bilingual school in Carmichael. rbenton@sacbee.com

When it comes to California’s public schools, the question should always be: What’s best for students?

By that measuring stick, voters should support Proposition 58, which would give students (and their parents) more choice in how they learn English and other languages.

If approved, local school districts could choose the most up-to-date and effective methods for language instruction. It would free districts from strict limits on bilingual education approved in Proposition 227, passed overwhelmingly during a time of anti-immigrant feeling in 1998, four years after voters approved Proposition 187, since struck down by the courts, to deny public services to undocumented immigrants.

In bilingual programs, English learners are taught by teachers who speak English and their native language. Under Proposition 227, English learners generally get one year of intensive English classes before transitioning into other English-only classes. Parents who want bilingual classes for their children must sign waivers each year, which Proposition 58 supporters say is an unfair burden. If there are enough waivers, schools can offer bilingual classes.

The year before Proposition 227, about 30 percent of English learners were in bilingual programs. A decade later, that was down to 5 percent. Studies are not definitive on whether Proposition 227 worked for Spanish-speaking students.

In 2015-16, about 1.4 million students in California public schools were English learners, about one-fifth of all students. More than 80 percent of English learners are native Spanish speakers.

But this ballot measure isn’t only about how best to help native Spanish speakers become proficient in English. It’s also about giving more options to parents, often affluent parents who want their kids to be in dual immersion programs for Mandarin and other languages, as well as Spanish.

And even if Proposition 58 passes, the state must do better by English learners and narrow the achievement gap. Under a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department announced Sept. 9 in a lawsuit filed by civil rights advocates, California promised that all English learners will get any help they need to keep up academically.

Proposition 58 is supported by the entire education establishment – the state PTA and school boards association, the teachers’ unions, school administrators and state schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson, as well as major business groups. The opposition is being led by Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who promoted Proposition 227.

When it passed, there were certainly shortcomings with bilingual education; too many students were stuck in Spanish-only classes for too long and weren’t learning enough. There were legitimate concerns from Latino parents, who picketed schools in Los Angeles.

But the solution should have been to improve bilingual education, not scuttle it.

The world has changed since 1998, and language instruction must keep up so California students can compete in the global economy. Proposition 58 will help.