Bilingual education is on the cusp of a comeback in California.

In 1998, voters passed a state law that mandated students in California be taught “overwhelmingly in English.”

Proposition 227, as the 1998 measure was called, didn’t make bilingual education illegal – parents can still enroll students in bilingual schools if they sign a waiver. But it was widely perceived as a ban on bilingual education.

Learning Curve-sq-01

Voters will have a chance to change that in a few weeks. Proposition 58 is a state ballot measure that would reverse most of Prop. 227, do away with waivers and make it a bit easier for schools and districts to start bilingual programs.

Opponents include Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley millionaire who orchestrated and drove Prop. 227. Today, Unz argues something similar to what he did back then: Thrusting English-learners into mainstream classes is the most effective way for them to learn language.

But this time around, it looks like fewer Californians are ready to side with Unz. A poll published in September showed nearly 70 percent of those polled intend to vote yes on Prop. 58. (A yes vote would reverse pieces of the 1998 law. A no vote would preserve the English-only law.)

The poll is good news for advocates. For others, questions remain. The San Diego Union-Tribune’s editorial board last week came out against Prop. 58, pointing out that the current system has produced high graduation rates, and why mess up a good thing?

But Patricia Gándara, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, rejects that framing. High graduation rates and learning multiple languages are not mutually exclusive, she says.

Gándara supports Prop. 58. This week I talked with her about why the English-only law was passed in the first place and what school districts need to consider if the measure passes.

This Q-and-A has been edited for style and clarity.

What are some key points that you think people need to understand about Prop. 58?

First, people need to know that Prop. 58 wouldn’t repeal Prop. 227. It would simply make it easier for school districts to give students more opportunities to learn languages.

Why do you think it’s important to note this isn’t a “repeal”?

Because Prop. 58 doesn’t take anything away from students. It would make it easier for schools to open dual-language programs and make it easier for students to add another language.

Some people want to juxtapose English-only instruction to bilingual instruction. As though they have to choose between learning English or another language. It makes me crazy. Every bilingual teacher out there has the goal for all students to be proficient in another language in addition to English. They are still learning English just like students in other programs.

Ron Unz said the reason why he originally had to push for Prop. 227 was that “hundreds of thousands of students” were languishing in Spanish-only schools.

First of all – and there have been national studies on this – most bilingual teachers are native English-speakers. And when researchers go in to observe bilingual classrooms, they notice that even in those classrooms, English is often being used as the default language for teachers. So there’s no evidence to support this idea that hundreds of thousands of students were languishing in Spanish-only schools.

I have no idea where Unz gets these numbers. He’s a lot like Donald Trump. He just says things.

You were studying this issue the first time this went to the ballot. What’s different now from 18 years ago?

Yes, I was studying this before 1998 and have been studying it ever since.

What’s different? With respect to kids, very little – because more than 70 percent of California’s English-learners already received instruction only in English prior to 1998. This is really important. Unz wanted to blame low achievement of English-learners on bilingual education. But overwhelmingly, these kids were not in bilingual education! If they weren’t doing well, it was more likely the English-only programs were to blame.

We have never truly committed to bilingual instruction in this state. Prop. 227 just made it more difficult for those who really wanted bilingual programs to get into them.

However, one thing that has changed over time is that bilingual programs used to be seen as “remedial” programs to just help kids get past the deficit of not speaking English.

Today we understand that bilingual and dual-language programs are actually enrichment programs. They allow kids to develop two languages – a huge asset in a global economy.

And, with respect to teachers, a lot has changed. We were always short on bilingual teachers. And compared to 1998, about a third as many teacher candidates are preparing themselves to be bilingual teachers today. Why would someone go through the expense and trouble to prepare for a job that doesn’t exist? So we have really emptied out the pool of bilingual teachers.

What Prop. 227 did is sent out a signal that we don’t do bilingual instruction in California, and that’s killing us. In my view, this has been the most harmful part of Prop. 227. Bilingual teachers are simply better prepared to help the kids.

There is now definitive research that shows English-learners enrolled in bilingual programs outperform English-learners enrolled in English-only programs. Even controlling for socioeconomic factors, kids coming out of bilingual programs have better command of English, and are testing out of language services at higher rates.

Those findings fit with what we already knew about how students learn multiple languages: They tend to start out slower, but by about fifth grade catch up, and often go on to outperform their English-only peers.

One thing that Ron Unz and opponents of Prop. 58 have pointed to is a rise in test scores after Prop. 227 passed. Should this be a reason to preserve the current system?

Yes, there was a small rise in test scores after 1998 for all students, which Unz attributed to English-only classrooms.

But a host of things were happening at the same time that led to a rise in test scores. In 1999, the state began tracking students’ performance in new ways and held schools accountable for academic progress.

But even while test scores went up for all students, the gap between English-learners and native English-speakers did not narrow overall.

Five years after Prop. 227 passed, the State Board of Education commissioned a study, which found that Prop. 227 did very little to close the achievement gap for English-learners. Let me read a portion from the executive summary:

“Since Proposition 227 was implemented alongside other reforms in a climate of increased accountability, it is not possible to attribute these gains to any one factor. While there has been a slight decrease in the performance gap between ELs and native English speakers, it has remained virtually constant in most subject areas for most grades.”

But Unz’s assertion that test scores shot up after 1998, and that we can attribute the overall rise in test scores to the English-only law, is misleading on an even more basic level.

Remember that a small percentage of students in California were enrolled in bilingual programs before 1998. So to say this small group of students is responsible for the overall rise just doesn’t make sense.

I think it’s fair to assume that a lot of voters in California are thinking about bilingual education for the first time. Maybe they weren’t around for Prop. 227 in 1998. But I think there’s also an older generation who says: “I remember bilingual schools from the ‘80s and ‘90s and they were pretty awful. Why should I assume this time would be any different?

I think what people perceived was accurate in some places. Prior to 1998, there were some schools that didn’t implement bilingual programs very effectively.

But I go back to two points. One, remember that the overwhelming majority of kids were not enrolled in bilingual classrooms. So, yes, many English-learners struggled, but most of them were struggling in English-only programs.

Second, I think even in 1998 we knew how to create strong bilingual programs. But, again, California has never really committed to bilingual education. Principals who tried to mount bilingual programs at their schools often had work against intense political pushback with very limited resources.

A lot of it at the time was tied to anti-immigrant sentiment leading up to 1998. Four years earlier, California Gov. Pete Wilson supported Prop. 187, which would have barred undocumented immigrants from accessing public services, including schools.

But I think there’s been a real shift in people’s mindsets in the past 18 years. Attitudes have changed. More communities are recognizing that bilingual and dual-language instruction benefits both sides – native and non-native English speakers.

A recent poll showed that 69 percent of those polled support Prop. 58. Assuming it passes, can we expect an explosion of dual-language programs?

Schools aren’t going to be able to mount these programs overnight. Prop. 227 just depleted the ranks of bilingual teachers. So people can ask for these programs all they want, but if the bilingual teachers aren’t there, they won’t have the infrastructure to support them.

Growing the teacher pipeline, I believe, is the next step. And I intend to have a conversation with legislators about pumping up our ranks of bilingual teachers. In 2012, California started offering the Seal of Biliteracy, which is a really big deal. Students who graduate with a Seal of Biliteracy have demonstrated that they can speak, write and think critically in multiple languages.

So far, at least 125,000 California students have graduated high school with the seal. There’s no reason whatsoever the state shouldn’t turn to these young people to help create a pipeline to prepare more bilingual teachers. We need a pathway that is clear, and we need incentives for young people to enter the profession.

California needs to join the rest of the world and prepare our young people for a global marketplace. And with its rich linguistic resources, California is uniquely positioned to be a leader in this effort.

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.