Bilingual education has been absent from California public schools for almost 20 years. But that may soon change

Ricardo Lara was in college when California voters approved a law that required public school students to speak and learn only in English. It was a debate, the now-state-senator remembers, that was tainted with racial undertones. 

“There was a lot of shame cast on us,” said Lara (D-Bell Gardens). “There was a clear sentiment that we were somehow different and un-American because we were Spanish speakers.”

For the children of Mexican immigrants such as him, who had gone through bilingual education programs and valued their immersion in two languages and cultures, Lara said it was upsetting.

Now on the Nov. 8 ballot, almost two decades later, is a measure that seeks to overhaul that law. Proposition 58, the product of 2014 legislation written by Lara, would repeal English-only instruction in public schools, giving local parents and teachers the control to develop their own multilingual programs.

Opponents of the measure, most notably Silicon Valley multimillionaire Ron Unz, who wrote the original English-only Proposition 227 in 1998, contend there is nothing to fix with the current system, saying the debate over bilingual education has long been “dead and forgotten.”

But supporters argue the bureaucratic red tape on bilingual and multilingual education is harmful to students in a global economy, where the most-sought-after employees speak more than one language.

“Prop. 58 is long overdue,” said Eric Heins, president of the California Teachers Assn. “We are really a diverse state now, and we are participating in a worldwide economy. For our students to only know one language puts them at a disadvantage, and the research bears that out.”

Researchers say interest in multilingual education is reemerging across the country. The issue is no longer as racially or politically charged, they said, and among the upper middle class is a growing recognition that knowing multiple languages is an asset.

But in California, teachers and school officials said the development of new programs has been hampered by the 1998 edict, which requires all children to learn in English unless parents request otherwise. Less than 5% of California public schools now offer multilingual programs, even as there are now 1.4 million English learners — about 80% of whom speak only Spanish.

Proposition 58 has received the endorsement of more than 20 school districts, nearly 100 elected officials, including Gov. Jerry Brown, and more than 55 diverse community and education organizations, including the California Chamber of Commerce and the California School Boards Assn.

The support has gradually translated into some campaign cash, about $2 million this year, largely from the California Teachers Assn./Issues PAC. Its opposition has raised none.

But the latest survey in September, conducted by the Field Poll and the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, has so far found starkly different levels of support for Proposition 58 among 1,800 registered voters statewide.

When provided with the official ballot language, 69% of respondents said they would back the measure, 14% were opposed and 17% undecided. The results sharply declined when voters were told the measure would repeal part of Proposition 227, with 51% opposing, 30% supporting and 19% undecided.

It’s still a shift in conversation from 20 years ago, when debate over bilingual education raged in California. Bilingual programs had long been the accepted response to the “sink-or-swim” mentality schools had previously taken toward English learners, causing many students to fall behind.

But by the late 1990s, many Latino parents had grown frustrated with schools that forced children into Spanish-only classes and failed to teach them English.

Those concerns helped Unz rally support for Proposition 227, which required all children to be taught in English unless parents signed a waiver to place their children in bilingual education.

Proposition 227 passed with more than 60% of the vote in 1998, despite broad opposition from bilingual associations and Latino civil rights organizations, and a $2.7-million TV advertising budget against the measure.

Research on whether the law worked and how success should be measured has been mixed. The proposition was lauded as successful after standardized test scores improved among students learning English months after the vote.

But further studies have shown bilingual and multilingual programs also can achieve results with more and better trained teachers and accountability measures in place. And they help students not only learn English, educators said, but also retain their native language.

Ilana Umansky, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon, found that while it takes most students slightly longer to reach English proficiency in multilingual programs, more students overall reach the goal. 

Using 12 years of data from a large school district in California, the results suggested that bilingual education may be able to reach and effectively serve more students than English-only programs, Umansky said. But whether taking slightly longer to learn English is harmful in the long term “depends on what children have access to as English learners,” she said.

“If an English-learner program prevents students from enrolling in honors classes or a full course load, then the longer you remain an English learner, the more you miss out on,” she said. “But if you are in a school where English learners have access to the full range of educational opportunities, then it really doesn’t matter if it takes slightly longer to acquire English.”

Unz, who fiercely defends Propoisition 227, says its outcomes have been positive. He argues politicians have been “hoodwinked” by a few stubborn activists and the parents of white, upper-class families who want Latinos to enroll in bilingual education.

“A very negative interpretation of the programs is they want to make sure there is a sufficient supply of Latino children to act as unpaid tutors to help their children learn Spanish,” Unz said. “The programs are not necessarily that popular with the Latino families.”

State Senate panel advances bill to restore bilingual education »

But Proposition 58 supporters remember what they called the racial undertones of the 1998 law. Proposition 227 came just four years after Proposition 187, which sought to prohibit immigrants who were illegally in the country from access to public benefits. (The measure passed but was ultimately deemed unconstitutional.) In between the two contentious campaigns was the 1996 passage of Proposition 209, which outlawed affirmative action programs.

Public opinion on legislation affecting immigrant families and their children was likely influenced by fear, as the state’s population was undergoing a vast transformation, bilingual teachers and multilingual program researchers said. 

As chairman of the Latino Legislative Caucus, Lara has worked with other lawmakers to reverse that legislation. He said his bill to rescind English-only education came as more parents are pushing for waivers to enroll their children in popular language-immersion programs and the waiting lists at multilingual academies and programs have grown.

“Attitudes are changing,” Lara said. “We have a much more diverse electorate, we have really turned away from our divisive policies … and we are in a much better place as a state.”

To Heins, it’s more than an overhaul of the old law.

“In essence, it is more about our future than it is about the past,” he said.

jazmine.ulloa@latimes.com

Twitter: @jazmineulloa

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