California Voters To Decide Future Of Bilingual Education For Country’s Largest ELL Population
California Voters to Decide Future of Bilingual Education for Country’s Largest ELL Population
Proposition 58 may not be the most high-profile of the 17 ballot questions Californian voters will be faced with this fall. The proposals to repeal the death penalty or legalize marijuana would likely hold that title. However, it holds significant importance in the realm of education propositions, potentially impacting over 1.5 million English-language learners in the state. This issue has become particularly relevant due to the current debate on immigration and the relationship with Mexico. The outcome of the vote is uncertain, despite strong support for the referendum from advocates.
The question before Californian voters is whether to overturn the 1998 referendum, Prop. 227, which limited the way schools could teach English-language learners. Prior to Prop. 227, English-language learners were placed solely in English-language classes, as opposed to bilingual classes. Under the current law, parents of English speakers and English-language learners can only request bilingual education in limited circumstances. Advocates argue that changing the law would give control back to districts and schools, allowing children to learn English in the way that suits their needs best, and also provide opportunities for native English speakers to learn a second language.
Since the time when the original proposition was passed, there has been a decrease in the value given to bilingualism, according to Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, president of Californians Together, a coalition of 25 groups focused on English-language learners. Prior to the change in 1998, about 30 percent of English-language learners were taught in bilingual settings, but this number has now dropped to around 4 percent. Spiegel-Coleman believes that after 18 years, it is time for the barriers created by Prop. 227 to be modified so that all students have access to multilingual programs.
There is a wide range of supporters for overturning the current rules. Teacher unions, civil rights groups, the state PTA, the California Chamber of Commerce, and the state Democratic Party are all in favor of the measure. Even groups not usually involved in education issues, such as the Sierra Club of California and California Professional Firefighters, support the initiative. By early October, over $1 million had been raised to promote Prop. 58, with half a million coming from the California Teachers Association and the rest primarily from other unions and the state school administrators association.
On the other hand, opposition to the proposition is largely limited to the state Republican and Libertarian parties, and Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley software developer who funded the original 1998 initiative. Opposition groups have not spent any money, according to campaign finance records. Unz, who made an unsuccessful bid for governor in 1994, began his campaign to fill the retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer’s seat in order to draw attention to this issue.
Unz explained that his inspiration to push for Prop. 227 came from a series of articles in the Los Angeles Times about "immigrant Latino parents" who protested against a school that refused to teach children English. He stated that the focus on English-only instruction has been successful, with children now learning English and test scores on the rise. However, a 2006 study by the American Institutes for Research found that while there was a slight decrease in the performance gap between English-language learners and native speakers, the gap in test scores remained consistent across grades and subjects. The researchers also noted that the reforms of Prop. 227 were implemented alongside other changes, including smaller class sizes, making it difficult to determine the direct impact of the proposition.
Unz believes that the movement to overturn Prop. 227 is driven by a "small group of very zealous advocates of bilingual education" who have deceived politicians. He mentioned that because California has term limits for its state lawmakers, the legislators who voted in favor of putting Prop. 58 on the ballot in 2014 were not in office during the 1998 debate on this issue.
It is anticipated that if schools decide to prioritize bilingual education, there will be opposition from parents and districts will ultimately revert back to the current system that emphasizes English instruction.
A significant impact could be seen in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where approximately 27% of the 558,000 K-12 students are classified as English-language learners. An additional 25 to 27% were previously categorized as English-language learners, meaning that over half of the district’s students either currently are or have been classified as such, according to Hilda Maldonado, the executive director of multilingual and multicultural education.
The district offers various options for English-language learners, ranging from mandatory English-language immersion classes, which make up about 85% of these students, to different bilingual programs.
Regardless of the program they attend, all students must demonstrate their English literacy skills at grade level within five years of starting the program, Maldonado stated. Five years ago, the district agreed with the federal Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights to enhance outcomes for English-language learners who were not meeting that benchmark.
Maldonado is already considering how to expand bilingual education in the district if Proposition 58 is passed. This includes attempting to recruit certified bilingual teachers and collaborating with the district’s HR department to evaluate current teachers and provide incentives for bilingual para-educators to become fully certified. The district will also search for teachers who speak a second language but are only credentialed in another subject to pursue bilingual certification.
By offering more bilingual education, teachers will gain insight into why English-language learners struggle with content, whether it is difficulty understanding English or comprehending the subject matter itself.
Maldonado, an English-language learner herself who arrived in the U.S. at the age of 11, believes that being bilingual or multilingual is of great importance in today’s interconnected world. She asserts that it brings people together rather than dividing them.
The outcome of the vote will likely depend on how knowledgeable voters are about the proposition and its effects, particularly in relation to the repeal of Proposition 227. In a September poll, 69% of participants expressed support for Proposition 58. However, this support dropped to 51% once respondents were informed that the proposition intended to overturn a part of Proposition 227. Particularly, Republicans, independents, and white respondents were more likely to change their stance when presented with this information.
Ron Unz believes that due to the official ballot language, which does not mention the reversal of Proposition 227, and the multitude of other races and ballot questions, many Californians will unintentionally vote in favor of Proposition 58. Unz points out how little attention Californians pay to the U.S. Senate race and therefore assumes that an initiative like Proposition 58 will receive minimal attention as well.
Supporters of the proposition also face the challenge of overwhelmed voters. To raise awareness, advocates will work with numerous endorsing groups and increasingly gain endorsements from major newspapers across the state. Additionally, they may run radio advertisements.
Spiegel-Coleman emphasizes that the main issue is ensuring people are aware of the proposition and encouraging them to vote in favor of it.
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