Blog: Latino Ed Beat

Will Californians Vote to Overturn Ban on Bilingual Education?

The fate of the U.S. presidency isn’t the only thing hanging in the balance on Election Day 2016.

Come Nov. 8, dual-language education could either get strengthened or further suppressed in the state with the highest percentage of English-language learners, as voters in California face a decision about overturning the state’s longstanding ban on a bilingual approach to educating these students.

“This is long overdue in a place as global as California, where we really need a multilingual society,” State Sen. Ricardo Lara, who sponsored legislation to repeal the ban, told The New York Times. California residents speak more than 200 languages, and about 40 percent of residents older than 5 speak a language other than English, with Spanish being the most common, according to the article.

“What we know now about teaching and learning language is vastly different than it was a generation ago,” Lara said.

California enacted Proposition 227 in the late 1990s, dictating that schools use English-language immersion to educate students who are not proficient English speakers. Parents who want their children under 10 to be taught in their native language after 30 days of English-only instruction can sign a waiver. 

It looks promising that Lara’s Proposition 58 on November’s ballot will pass.

In spite of current legislation, dual-language programs in California — and nationwide — have been on the rise due to provisions that permit these courses in some circumstances. The Los Angeles school district alone added nine additional programs this year, including one in Armenian and another in Arabic, EdSource reports

Public opinion has also shifted in the decades since Proposition 227 when “public resentments toward California’s large immigrant population were running high,” Corey Mitchell writes for Education Week.

In 2011, the state became the first to adopt a statewide Seal of Biliteracy — an award given to high school graduates who are bilingual and biliterate. The Seal, started by the nonprofit group Californians Together, is offered in 22 states and Washington, D.C.

As I wrote in an earlier blog post, research has shown that children who are bilingual perform better academically than their peers who speak only one language. A study conducted by the George Mason University researchers Virginia Collier and Wayne Thomas of 85,662 students in North Carolina Public Schools during the 2009-10 school year found that overall, English-language learners in two-way dual-language programs had higher reading and math scores. At the middle school level, most students in these programs were scoring higher than monolingual students in the grade above them, and in some cases two grade levels higher than their current academic year.  

Rachel Hazlehurst, a literacy and language specialist at the dual-language Camino Nuevo Charter Academy in Los Angeles, told me then that the fact that bilingual education is once again becoming a political issue in California indicates that these programs have been successful.

“Thankfully, public policy leaders are returning to the research about what works for ELLs and therefore bilingual programs are back in favor – because the research shows they work,” she said.