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Bilingual Education Will Make a Comeback in California

The state, which has more English-language learners than any other, restricted bilingual education in the '90s. Voters are bringing it back.

A dual-language kindergarten class taught in English and Vietnamese in Seattle, Wash., one of the states that has promoted bilingual education in recent years.
(AP/Elaine Thompson)
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Nearly two decades after voters made California one of the most restrictive states for bilingual education in public schools, residents on Tuesday reversed that decision.

In California -- which has the nation's highest rate of students who speak a non-English language at home -- fewer than 5 percent of public schools now offer multilingual programs. But by approving Proposition 58, school districts can now offer regular dual-language programs.

In 1998, voters approved Prop. 227, a law passed amid anti-immigrant fervor that said students whose first language isn't English can only take one year of intensive English instruction before transitioning to English-only classes. Parents who wanted bilingual classes for their kids beyond that had to sign a waiver each year.

Prop. 58 essentially repeals the waiver system but keeps intact the part of the law requiring proficiency in English. It cruised to victory Tuesday night by a nearly three-to-one margin.

Critics of the waiver system said it creates a lot of inconsistency between school districts. For example, the San Diego Unified School District has dozens of dual-language programs in elementary schools, while Fresno Unified offers just a few even though its share of English learners is higher.

Bilingual education, particularly for primary school children, has become increasingly popular among native English speakers over the past decade, said Santiago Wood, executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education, which supported Prop. 58. That's primarily because studies have shown that a multilingual brain is nimbler and better able to deal with ambiguities and resolve conflicts. Some research shows multilingual people are even able to resist Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia longer.

California was one of four states -- the others are Arizona, Massachusetts and New Hampshire -- with laws constraining the use of bilingual education programs, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Meanwhile, seven states -- Delaware, Georgia, New Mexico, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Utah and Washington -- have launched major efforts to promote bilingual education in public schools in recent years.

Utah, for example, started a program in 2008 that offered instruction half in English and half in either Chinese, French or Spanish. It started with kindergarten, and the intention was to add one grade to the program each year. Two years later, the program expanded beyond elementary schools, and by 2014, more than 25,000 students were enrolled in dual-language programs at 118 schools.

Callifornia's proposal immediately impacts about 1.4 million students in public schools who are English learners. But given the increasing popularity for English-speaking students to enroll in dual-language immersion programs, the total number of students could be much higher.

Prop. 58 was supported by the state's education establishment, major business groups and many of the state’s top politicians, including Gov. Jerry Brown. 

One of the most active campaigners against Prop. 58 was Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who was a leading force behind the 1998 law. In numerous op-eds on the issue, Unz has said that the old system of sheltering non-English-speaking children in their own classes led to halted education development and frustrated parents. In fact, in 1996, a group of Latino immigrant parents in Los Angeles protested against their local elementary schools for ignoring their requests to teach their kids in only English.

But supporters of Prop. 58 argued that the new proposal wouldn’t doom California back to the days when non-English-speaking students were languishing in Spanish-only classes. Instead, they point to scores of research that shows that bilingual education -- when executed effectively -- has benefits for all students because it stimulates the learning center of the brain. 

“For anyone today to not want to not recognize this as a fact of life and as a 21st Century pathway, it would be an act of folly,” said Wood. “Why not let your child be part of the larger world?”

Read all of our coverage on 2016 ballot measures at

Liz Farmer is a former GOVERNING fiscal policy writer.
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