Multilingual Education in California

This display is from a Korean-English immersion curriculum used in a Los Angeles school.

In November 2016, nearly three-fourths of California voters approved Proposition 58, a measure to allow expansion of bilingual education programs in California public schools. Proposition 58 mostly repeals the provisions of Proposition 227, which was approved by 61 percent of California voters in 1998. Proposition 227 mandated that all classroom instruction for English learners be in English, with some allowance made for the use of non-English materials to help students. Proposition 227 put English learners in intensive “sheltered” English immersion classes for a year before moving them into mainstream English-only classes. It also required that parents who wanted their child to receive bilingual instruction sign a waiver every year.

In overturning the mandate that English learners be taught only in English, Proposition 58 will allow an array of language-acquisition programs, including bilingual instruction. It removes the parental waiver requirement and calls for more community input into how English learners and learners of other languages should be taught. Opponents of Proposition 58 believe the intensive English-immersion approach is the best way to keep English learners from falling behind their English-speaking peers in other subjects. They cited improvements in academic test scores among immigrant schoolchildren since passage of Proposition 227, as well as increased college admissions for children from immigrant backgrounds.

Supporters of Proposition 58 argued that the current English-only approach has not benefited all students and actually has caused English learners to lag behind their peers in subjects such as mathematics, history, and science. They dispute the findings that show the current policy to be successful. Supporters also point to opportunities that knowledge of languages other than English brings to the highly globalized California economy. Communities and public schools will now have more choice in how to teach English learners, including approaches that will allow students to acquire English while honing their skills in their native tongue—all while keeping up in other subjects. English-speaking students who wish to learn a second language will benefit from a dual-language setting.

It is too early to tell whether Proposition 58 will be a success. Schools have until July 2017 to submit requests for new bilingual or biliteracy programs. The State Board of Education will issue guidelines for implementation.

Image credit: © Nick Ut/AP Images

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