Senate panel moves bill to restore multilingual K-12 classrooms
(Calif.) A bill that would repeal the core tenets of a 15-year-old ban on the use of bilingual education in the state’s K-12 school system cleared its first legislative hurdle Wednesday – passing out of the Senate Education Committee, where it was lauded as being both necessary and overdue.
SB 1174 by Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, would align classroom practice with current research that shows students are capable of academic achievement in one language while learning in another. In other words, non-English speaking children learn better when their primary language can be used as an instructional tool.
“Over the last 15 years since the passage of Prop. 227 in 1998, pedagogy and language teaching models have evolved,” Lara told members of the education committee. “New research has shown that children have an innate ability to absorb multiple languages at once, while previously it was thought to confuse them.
“Children who participate in multilingual programs literally outperform their peers in the long run,” Lara added. “They also have higher learning potential when they enter the workforce.”
Born out of dissatisfaction with the state’s bilingual education program – even among some parents of English learners – Proposition 227 mandated English only 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.
That measure, overwhelmingly approved, sparked one of the most politically-charged campaigns in California history, characterized by a painful subtext of wedge issues from race to immigration and poverty.
Lara’s bill would put an initiative before voters in November, 2016 that would enable California’s public schools to teach foreign language immersion classes. According to Lara, of the state’s more than 10,000 schools, only 300 offer multilingual programs due to Prop. 227’s restrictions.
The legislation would also strike out key provisions of the 1998 law, including perhaps its most controversial element – the right of parents and guardians to file suit and hold school officials personally liable if schools were found to be repeatedly violating the measure’s requirements.
The measure comes forward as the California State Board of Education considers a new curriculum framework for English language arts and English language development that embraces bilingual education. The framework would seem to anticipate Lara’s bill and award of new flexibility to schools for teaching English learners by state voters.
Now named the California Education for a Global Economy Initiative – a moniker that better emphasizes the state’s linguistic diversity as a gift rather than a barrier – SB 1174 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.”
A report commissioned by the California Department of Education in 2000 looking at the effects of Proposition 227 over a five-year period found mixed results in terms of academic gains made by English learners. While students across all language classifications experienced some performance improvements, there was no clear evidence the English-only mandate was responsible, and researchers also found that the achievement gap between English learners and the mainstream population remained relatively unchanged.
But Grace McField, a California State San Marcos education professor and research expert on dual language programs, said Wednesday that at least nine major reviews on the subject completed since 1998 tell the same story: Student achievement has not improved under English-only mandates.
“In short, 30 years of research in the field clearly and consistently demonstrates strong support for multilingual education programs for all students,” McField said. “I also want to underscore the fact that all dual language programs are interested in advancing English proficiency, first and foremost.”
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.
A recent UCLA study, he said, found 81 percent of employers across all sectors prefer to hire multilingual individuals.
“California has the eighth largest economy in the world and trades with partners in almost every continent and corner of the globe,” Lara said. “This bill is about giving our students the educational and employment edge they need to be competitive on the world stage.”
He pointed 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.