Schools’ English-only mandate set to resurface

Schools’ English-only mandate set to resurface

(Calif.) A much-anticipated bill aimed at repealing the state’s controversial ban on most bilingual education in K-12 schools faces its first legislative test next week, as supporters seek to reshape the debate from one that generates ethnic divide to a question of global competitiveness.

SB 1174 by state Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, would put an initiative before voters in November, 2016 that would enable California’s public schools to teach foreign language immersion classes.

It would also, however, strike out key elements of Proposition 227 – that landmark 1998 voter initiative that requires all public school instruction to be conducted in English with some limited exceptions.

That measure, overwhelmingly approved, sparked one of the most politically-charged campaigns in California history that was characterized by a painful subtext of wedge issues from race to immigration and poverty.

Lara’s bill has so far received limited coverage in the mainstream press but that is likely to change as it is set to go before the Senate Education committee next Wednesday. Perhaps in anticipation of that hearing, the bill underwent some revision this week including a new name, the California Education for a Global Economy Initiative – a move that might better emphasize the state’s linguistic diversity as a gift rather than a barrier.

“This is about giving our students the educational and employment edge to be competitive in the global economy,” said Lara. “In an increasingly interconnected world, we have to prepare our students for a future in which their success depends not only on an ability to understand diverse perspectives and cultures, but also on an ability to communicate in different languages.”

Born out of dissatisfaction with the state’s bilingual education program – even among some parents of English learners – Proposition 227 mandated English for instructional purposes inside the classroom but also provided a waiver process that gave parents the ability to petition for a bilingual program or be granted permission to transfer to a school that offers one.

Perhaps the most controversial element of the measure, however, gave parents and guardians the right to file suit and hold school officials personally liable if schools were found to be repeatedly violating the measure’s requirements.

Initially, the number of schools offering multilingual programs fell dramatically as some instructors were warned against using even a single word other than English in the classroom.

A report commissioned by the California Department of Education in 2000 looking at the effects of Proposition 227 over a five-year period found results were mixed.

While students across all language classifications experienced some performance improvements, there was no clear evidence the English-only mandate was responsible.

Researchers also found that the achievement gap between English learners and the mainstream population remained relatively unchanged.

Meanwhile, schools have adapted and increasingly found ways to provide a greater range of instruction in foreign languages typically by offering dual immersion programs. As practiced at many districts, dual immersion means that English along with one other language is used daily in the classroom where students are also usually a mix of native English speakers and non-English speakers.

Lara said his bill and the proposed ballot measure is not about bilingual education or English learners – it’s about keeping the state competitive in the global economy.

“Recent studies show that employers are increasingly seeking a multilingual workforce and all students – English and non-English learners alike – deserve access to this invaluable skill,” he said.

Lara’s proposed ballot measure would “authorize school districts and county offices of education to determine the best language instruction methods and language acquisition programs to implement by consulting experts in the field, parents, and engaging local communities.”

The bill would also allow parents to “choose the education model that best suits their child.”

If approved by voters, the measure would also delete the existing liability provision that allows parents or guardians to sue schools and school officials over the English-only mandate.

According to a fact sheet from Lara’s office, schools are unable to teach in any language other than English unless parents go through the waiver process that most parents are not aware of.

They point out that the California Education for a Global Economy Initiative will not change California’s official language – it will remain English and K-12 schools will continue to use English as the primary instructional language.

Lara’s bill, he argues, will provide parents the option for their children to learn and become fluent in an additional language.