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California Voters Poised to Bring Back|Bilingual Education Programs

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Despite a political climate rife with xenophobia and calls for assimilation, bilingual education advocates in California enjoy bipartisan support for an initiative that would repeal most of the once-popular law approved by voters decades ago that made English-only instruction standard across the state even for English learners.

Proposition 227 passed with 61 percent of the vote in 1998. It requires all California students, including English learners, be taught mostly in English. While the law did not outlaw bilingual programs in schools, it did require that parents sign waivers in order for their kids to participate in bilingual programs.

Consequently, schools tossed their bilingual programs out of an "abundance of caution" in complying with the law, according to Vickie Ramos Harris, senior advisor on education policy at the Advancement Project.

"School administrators didn't feel like they could go there for fear of being sued. Even today, administrators say it's a wound they still kind of feel. They did everything they could to make sure they weren't sued, and in doing so closed the door to families from having these conversations about what is best for their kids," Ramos Harris said.

No lawsuits were filed, mostly because school districts decided to unilaterally ban bilingual programs rather than worrying about complying with Proposition 227, Ramos Harris said.

In the academic — and political — world there are disputes over whether Proposition 227 benefited students, particularly English learners. Supporters point to a study which shows the law improved the academic test scores of over 1 million immigrant children in California. But opponents say that improvement can't be attributed to just one law, since many changes were made to education in California during that time. They also say research over the past 20 years points to social and cognitive benefits of educating multilingual kids.

Now, California voters seem to be on the opposite side of the spectrum in supporting bilingual education for students. Enter Proposition 58.

Recent polls indicate Proposition 58 has the support of 68 percent of voters — more than voted for Proposition 227 in 1998. Given the current political rhetoric surrounding immigration and "building a wall" along the U.S.-Mexico border, some are surprised at the support of new law promoting bilingualism.

But Ramos Harris said educators know a lot more about how kids learn — especially when it comes to language development — than experts knew when Proposition 227 was passed.

Proposition 58 surprisingly has support from more conservative-leaning business groups such as the California Chamber of Commerce and California Business Roundtable. Perhaps it's because the initiative is being framed as an "asset" for all California students, especially when it comes to creating competitive global citizens able to compete in the workforce.

"Our neuroscience tells us we are wired to learn every single language in the world," Ramos Harris said. "When we offer those opportunities early on, students develop a 'native' level of biliteracy. This is what they do in Europe and all over the world, but we just don't have that paradigm here."

Shelly Spiegel-Coleman with Californians Together, a statewide advocacy coalition for English learners, echoed Ramos Harris. She noted that brain research on English learners and biliterate people shows they have cognitive flexibility and can see things from more than one perspective, and even multitask better than people who speak only one language


Proposition 58 has bipartisan support from more than 50 organizations and over 20 newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle. The measure would give schools and parents the option to establish bilingual programs in neighborhood schools, returning local control over how bilingual education should be approached in their school districts.

Supporters of Proposition 58 have raised nearly $2.75 million while the opposition hasn't raised any money at all, according to a campaign finance tracker by the Sacramento Bee. Its most vocal opponent is former Proposition 227 sponsor and Silicon Valley software entrepreneur Ron Unz.

Unz, a Republican currently running for U.S. Senate seat, says on his campaign website that he's challenging the "worthless Republicans in the California Legislature" who support Proposition 58 and repealing its predecessor.

"They want to reestablish Spanish-almost-only 'bilingual education' in our public schools, an educational policy that was a total disaster at the time and is now nearly forgotten. I believe that all children should be taught how to read, write and speak English when they go to school, and that's exactly what their families want," Unz wrote.

Ramos Harris disputed Unz's characterization that English learners who made up 25 percent of California's K-12 students and came from Spanish-speaking households were put in Spanish-only classes — one of his major arguments for Proposition 227 that has resurfaced as he rallies against Proposition 58.

"Spanish-only classes did not define the situation for all learners. Now we're in the opposite extreme with structured English-only learning," Ramos Harris said.

And the anti-immigrant rhetoric that cushioned the passage of Proposition 227 hasn't gone away. Earlier this week, a Spanish-language immersion school in Windsor, California, was tagged with graffiti bearing anti-immigrant messages such as "Build the wall higher" and numerous references to Donald Trump.

But both Ramos Harris and Spiegel-Coleman say people across the state now see bilingualism as an asset that's needed to compete in the global economy. A UCLA study showing that bilingual job applicants are much more likely to be hired seems to support that sentiment.

Ramos Harris also pointed out Proposition 58 doesn't mandate or force bilingualism on schools and families. Instead, it removes barriers to allowing schools and parents to decide what kind of learning is best for their kids.

The proposition will not come at a cost for English proficiency either, as students must still meet the same English standards.

Proposition 58 also opens up options for English-speaking students to participate in language immersion programs. Those programs sharply declined after Proposition 227 was passed; the California Department of Education says just 312 out of the state's 10,393 K-12 schools offer multilingual or dual-immersion programs.

Despite this decline, the state seal of biliteracy - a marker on the diploma of high school graduates who are proficient in writing, reading and speaking one or more languages besides English - has grown exponentially since California was the first state to adopt it five years ago. Spiegel-Coleman said more than 20 states have since created their own biliteracy seal programs, and a handful of others are in the initial stages of establishing their own criteria for recognizing students.

Since 2011, more than 126,000 California seniors have graduated with a biliteracy seal, spanning more than 29 languages.

"This whole turn-around of seeing language as an asset has had a big impression on families, educators and policymakers," Spiegel-Coleman said. "It's created an atmosphere for welcoming many more languages. There's a need in our workforce for bilingual professionals; the California Medical Association even came out in support of Proposition 58 and believes doctors who are bilingual make better doctors.

"People are seeing this as a plus and not reacting to it as a negative. The issue of knowing only English as being better is not backed up by the research at all."

California voters will decide Proposition 58's fate on Nov. 8.

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