1.4 million students could benefit from bilingual education if this ballot initiative passes

The power is in the hands of California voters.

In this Nov. 10, 2014 photo, Rosaisela Rodriguez, center, reads with her children Isabel Gutierrez, left, and Rafael Gutierrez, at their home in Pleasant Hill, California. CREDIT: AP/Ben Margot
In this Nov. 10, 2014 photo, Rosaisela Rodriguez, center, reads with her children Isabel Gutierrez, left, and Rafael Gutierrez, at their home in Pleasant Hill, California. CREDIT: AP/Ben Margot

Next week, California voters will have the chance to vote on a ballot initiative, called Proposition 58, that will allow students to receive bilingual instruction.

That’s right — California, a state with more than 10 million immigrants and where English Language Learners make up about 23 percent of public school students, is only now considering improving its access to bilingual education.

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That’s because nearly two decades ago, a different ballot initiative called Proposition 227 — which critics called racist and xenophobic — made it much more difficult for ELL students to access bilingual education.

Proposition 227 required all public education in California to be taught in English, and stipulated this requirement can only be waived if parents can prove their child has special needs, already knows English, or would learn English faster if they had a bilingual education. At the time, proponents of the initiative argued that children needed to learn English as quickly as possible and that a bilingual education would hurt their academic achievement.

Although it didn’t completely obliterate bilingual education, Proposition 227 made it much more difficult for ELL students to access. Before the initiative, 30 percent of ELL students were taught in bilingual classrooms, according to Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, the president of Californians Together, a coalition that focuses on protecting the rights of English language learners, in an interview with The 74 — but now, only about 4 percent receive a bilingual education. In contrast with a high number of ELL students, there were only 693 new bilingual teachers certified in California during the 2014–2015 school year.

Under Prop 58, local school districts would still be able to make decisions about expanding bilingual education, but parents wouldn’t need to get a waiver to have their child receive a bilingual education.

Dolores Sanchez, right, and Tere Rivera watch dejectedly as a television monitor announces the passing of Proposition 227 in a East Los Angeles Mexican restaurant, Tuesday, June 2, 1998. CREDIT:AP/Brian Pobuda
Dolores Sanchez, right, and Tere Rivera watch dejectedly as a television monitor announces the passing of Proposition 227 in a East Los Angeles Mexican restaurant, Tuesday, June 2, 1998. CREDIT:AP/Brian Pobuda

A 2014 Stanford University study showed that although ELL students who did receive waivers to be educated through bilingual programs didn’t perform as well as those in English immersion programs in the short term, they caught up with those students and surpassed them academically and linguistically in the long term.

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English language learners may feel much more welcome in bilingual environments and do better in school as a result, Rachel Hazlehurst, a literacy and language specialist at Los Angeles’ Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, told the Atlantic’s Melinda Anderson.

“Students need to see themselves in the school in order to excel academically. If there’s a disconnect between students’ home identities… and what’s promoted by the school, students are more likely to disconnect, disinvest, and experience educational failure,” Hazlehurst said.

Those who support Prop 58 argue that a bilingual education — or dual language immersion programs, as they’re often called — argue that these programs don’t only benefit ELL students. These programs are also popular among white middle class families who want their children to receive an advantage in “the increasingly globalized world,” Julie Sugarman of the Center for Applies Linguistics told the Los Angeles Times in a 2011 article.

“Bilingual education has basically become a dirty word, but dual-language programs seem to have this cachet that people are glomming onto,” Sugarman told the L.A. Times.

There’s another reason parents are scrambling to get to their child into dual language immersion programs. There are cognitive benefits to bilingualism. And in some cases, it can also improve your earnings.