Not a bang but a whimper: bilingual ed ban’s likely exit

Not a bang but a whimper: bilingual ed ban’s likely exit

(Calif.) Eighteen years ago, bilingual education was about as hot a political topic as there was in California – today, not so much, despite the best efforts of Donald Trump to make immigration a wedge issue.

Many voters were still smoldering in June 1998, over the federal courts throwing out major portions of Proposition 187, a divisive constitutional amendment that would have restricted noncitizens’ access to many public services. It wasn’t a big shock then that nearly 60 percent of the electorate that spring backed another initiative, Proposition 227, which generally required instruction in the public schools to be conducted in English only.

This November, the question comes back as voters have been asked by the Legislature to repeal the English-only mandate by approving yet another ballot measure, Proposition 58.

But what was a very big deal two decades ago and what would seemingly fit neatly into Trump’s anti-immigration platform, has so far generated only the slightest ripple of attention.

Most political scientists aren’t surprised, as the political landscape in the Golden State is much different today than it was in the 1990s.

“California is now largely a progressive state on most issues,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. “This state has changed faster than the rest of the country on immigration, and because of the weakness of the Republican Party here, there really isn’t a base as there was in 1998 to contest on immigration issues.”

Sonenshein said the bilingual education measure could still become an issue this fall but probably outside California—more likely as part of the presidential battle and probably elsewhere, such as in the Midwest or the in the South—where immigration is a far bigger issue.

“In California, the debate has cooled,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that there won’t be more debate, but compared to the national discussion on immigration, I think California is sort of on to other things,” he said.

Indeed, since the measure officially qualified for the ballot in 2014 following passage out of both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s signature, the state’s biggest newspapers have barely touched on it. A cursory review found just a handful mentions in the two years, either as Proposition 58 or Senate Bill 1174 by state Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, the legislative vehicle that put it before voters.

Unlike the intense public debate that Prop. 227 worked up, there is no formal opposition yet to Proposition 58 and most Capitol insiders say they don’t believe there will be.

The most likely leader of the defense, Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Ron Unz—who led the successful campaign for 227—ran and lost badly this spring in a bid for the U.S. Senate. Some observers suspected that Unz had hoped to make the runoff, in part so that he could make the case for keeping the bilingual education ban.

If public interest in Proposition 58 has flatlined, it is not because the policy implications for educating English learners are not enormous. About 2.7 million students, or roughly 43 percent of school enrollment, come from homes where a language other than English dominates. Almost half of those students—close to 1.7 million—are classified as not yet fluent in English.

Under current law, schools are generally required to teach English learners in English. Use of bilingual programs is very limited, according to analysis from the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office. New immigrants are supposed to be sent to an English-immersion setting for no more than one year before transitioning those students back into the mainstream classroom.

Bilingual programs can be implemented, the LAO said, under a parent-initiated waiver system that is conditioned by the age of the student and their academic status. Prior to the passage of Prop. 227, almost 30 percent of English learners were taught in bilingual programs; 10 years later, only about 5 percent received that type of instruction, the LAO said.

If approved, Prop. 58 would eliminate the English-only mandate. Schools would instead be allowed to design their own programs for teaching English learners—including bilingual programs—but that decision would need to be made with the input of parents and the community, the LAO analysis said.

The measure would also allow parents at a school to petition the administration to add a bilingual program.

Prop. 58 doesn’t repeal every element of its predecessor. In fact, it contains a provision that would allow the Legislature to amend the remaining parts of Prop. 227 with a simple majority in both houses.

The education community, backed up by piles of research, never embraced the tenets of Prop. 227 and, in many cases, sought ways to circumvent the bilingual ban.

In the years since the prohibition’s passage, fears over sanctioning or lawsuits for violating the law have faded so much so that a revised guide to instructing English learners released by the California Department of Education in 2014 boldly advised teachers working with recent immigrants to use the primary or home language of a student as part of the instruction.

News of the CDE’s guide barely caused a stir among conservatives that had championed the ban 16 years before.

Supporters of Prop. 227 say the crowded ballot this year—with combined state and local measures totaling more than 30 in some communities—may have contributed to many would-be opponents overlooking Prop. 58. But there are also a lot of changes in the works for California public schools overall, and bilingual education is just one of them.

“There are so many other things going on in our schools that are troubling to parents; this is just one of them,” said Dawn Wildman, founder of the California Tea Party Groups Coalition. “(Removing the bilingual ban) seems like such a disservice to kids, because everything they are going to need and everything they are going to do is in English.”