News

California voters eye changing course on ‘English only’

A teacher writes on the blackboard in a class for English language learners. (Photo: Viacheslav Nikolaenko)

A proposition on the Nov. 8 ballot would eliminate a voter-instituted requirement to teach English learners primarily in English.

Proposition 58, titled the “English Proficiency, Multilingual Education” initiative, would repeal key provisions of Proposition 227 approved by voters in 1998. For instance, parents would no longer need to sign waivers to get into bilingual education programs. Schools could more easily institute bilingual programs.

Prop 227 came about after Latino immigrants in Los Angeles began protesting public schools that were teaching their children in mostly Spanish language classes. The parents wanted their children to learn English.

Supporters of the initiative say giving schools this flexibility will help more English learners master the English language. Opponents say English immersion, rather than bilingual instruction, is the best way to learn English.

In the 2015-16 school year, 1.4 million California public school students were classified as English learners, making up 22 percent of the population in public schools, according to analysis in the official voter information guide. More than 80 percent of English learners are native Spanish speakers.

Proposition 227 came about after Latino immigrants in Los Angeles began protesting public schools that were teaching their children in mostly Spanish language classes. The parents wanted their children to learn English. An activist was quoted in the LA Times during this period saying the kids “would go all the way through elementary school and they would go into junior high, maybe reading or writing at the first- and second-grade level.”

Proposition 58 would still allow parents to request English-only instruction for their children. But it would remove barriers from getting bilingual instruction, said Inez Kaminski, a spokesperson for the Yes on Proposition 58 campaign. The current waiver process to enter bilingual education is cumbersome and difficult to understand, she said. It is not enough under current law for parents to say they prefer bilingual education. They must state a special need that their students have and many parents don’t know what that is.

“Everybody knows it takes three or four months when starting kindergarten to learn English.” — Ron Unz

Moreover, Kaminski said not enough schools are offer bilingual programs. Some schools and districts discourage parents from signing the waivers. Many of those bilingual programs that are offered have long waiting lists.

Kaminski said Proposition 58 “removes the red tape so when parents and teachers want to offer multilingual programs, they have the tools to do so.”

She believes the current system is not working and leaving too many children behind. She pointed to a 2006 study by the American Institutes for Research and West Ed that estimated less than 40 percent of English learners achieve English fluency after 10 years in English-only programs.  The study said the percentage varies widely among different school districts – with some recording a percentage as low as 14 and others as high as 72.

Organizations that support Proposition 58 include the California Teachers Association and the California Association of School Administrators.

Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley software developer who sponsored Proposition 227, said that initiative worked wonderfully. “Once the initiative passed and changes were made, within three or four years, test scores of immigrant students shot up,” he said. “Everybody knows it takes three or four months when starting kindergarten to learn English.”

Unz said newspapers that initially opposed 227 later came out with articles reporting that it was a success. It’s now been so long since the change, that public has forgotten why it was necessary, Unz said.

She chose bilingual education for her child because she wanted him to learn academic Spanish and become fluent in English. The family speaks Spanish at home.

A problem is that school districts have a financial motivation to keep students classified as English learners, Unz said. “Schools get more money for every student who doesn’t know English,” Unz said. “They lose funding whenever there is a student that learns English.”

Another issue is that bilingual education usually means Spanish almost only instruction, he said. Typical dual-immersion programs that exist now begin with offering 95 percent of instruction in Spanish in kindergarten, then move to a lower and lower percentage of Spanish until it is 50-50 Spanish and English in say fifth grade.

This approach benefits native English speakers who want to learn Spanish then the reverse, Unz said. “The Latino students are serving as unpaid Spanish language tutors,” he said.

Karina Cortez, a native Spanish speaking parent at the popular Osborn Two-Way Immersion Academy in Turlock, said she was concerned at first that her son would have trouble learning English, but by third grade, he was classified as proficient.  She said she chose bilingual education for her child because she wanted him to learn academic Spanish and become fluent in English. The family speaks Spanish at home.

“As a parent, I want my children to receive the best education and I have seen that the dual immersion program is very effective,” she said in an email. “I believe that being able to communicate in more than one language opens many doors in today’s competitive world.”

Osborn, a TK-6 school with 930 students, strives to keep 50 percent of its students native Spanish speakers and 50 percent native English speakers. Principal Ed Ewing said the wait list for native English speakers is usually longer than for Spanish speakers.

At Osborn at least, there is little danger that the Spanish speaking students won’t learn English because most of them come from families that have been in America two or three generations and speak both Spanish and English in the home.

“They want to preserve the heritage language,” Ewing said. “They don’t want the children to lose the language of their culture.”

 


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