Eighteen years ago, a California ballot measure sparked a highly visible and contentious debate about how to teach hundreds of thousands of children who weren’t fluent in English. In 1998, after much public scrutiny and divisive campaigning, voters passed Proposition 227, requiring all English learners to be taught in English.
Now, with much less fanfare, the key component of Prop. 227 is on the chopping block. Proposition 58, a measure on the Nov. 8 ballot, would remove the English-only requirement and allow public schools to choose their own language instruction programs.
If Prop. 58 passes, schools can use English-only programs but are no longer mandated to do so, or they can use bilingual or other programs. Schools are expected, however, to make that decision with the input of parents. While Prop. 227 mandated English-only instruction, it allowed exceptions if parents signed a waiver to enroll their children in bilingual programs. Prop. 58 removes that waiver requirement.
In 2015, about 2.7 million California students spoke another language at home, according to the California Department of Education. About 1.4 million of those students were classified as English learners, accounting for 22 percent of total enrollment in California public schools, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.
Supporters say Prop. 58 brings with it the opportunity for English learners to gain English proficiency through multiple avenues. They say it also makes it easier for students who speak English to learn a new language — an asset in a global workforce economy.
Allowing districts that flexibility is key to making the best decisions for all students, said Dennis Meyers, assistant executive director for governmental relations for the California School Boards Association.
“Prop. 58 modernizes California language instruction and brings it into the California 21st century,” Meyers said, referring to changes in education spanning almost two decades.
Supporters like Meyers say the new measure offers school districts and parents more local control and fits with the Local Control Funding Formula, California’s new funding system that shifts financial decisions to local districts and directs more money for high-needs students: low-income children, foster and homeless youth and English learners.
Francisco Rodriguez, vice president of the California Federation of Teachers, also supports Prop. 58. He said his primary reason is simple: increased flexibility. Though the conversation about language is often centered on Spanish-speakers, Rodriguez said there are many school districts with large concentrations of students speaking other languages. Those schools will benefit from being able to reach more students through dual-immersion classes, in which English-speaking students and students who speak another language are taught together using both languages.
Rodriguez said he doesn’t dispute that the English-only classes mandated by Prop. 227 helped students, but teaching in students’ primary languages will help ensure they understand the concepts, he said.
“It takes three to five years to be academically proficient in a new language, which means you lose in academics for three to five years,” he said. “A student who is immersed in all English may be able to learn how to communicate in English faster but that does not mean that they fully understand the academic concepts on their grade level.”
Opponents argue that Prop. 58 takes away parent choice and works against English learners, the very group it proposes to help. One of the most vocal opponents is Ron Unz, chairman of “English for the Children,” which sponsored Prop. 227.
Unz said legislators are being “hoodwinked” and that Prop. 58 is another ploy to funnel students into classes where Spanish or another foreign language is dominant, making it that much harder for a student to learn English.
Unz said even if Prop. 58 passes with 99 percent approval, a large-scale return to bilingual classes is not likely because parents want their children to learn English quickly. Bilingual classes prolong that process by five to seven years, Unz said.
Prop. 58 would allow for students who speak English to more readily enroll in classes with students who speak a foreign language. Those students would become fluent in foreign languages faster but what’s less clear is how that move truly benefits English learners, Unz said.
“The bottom line is dual-immersion programs are almost entirely motivated by parents whose (English-speaking) children are in those programs to learn another language,” he said. The English learners “are being used as unpaid private language tutors to help other children learn Spanish.”
More than 80 percent of English learners in California are native Spanish speakers, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.