Bilingual Education in California: An Official Welcome Back

The United States does not have an official language, yet bilingualism in the public sphere is far from accepted. California, however, has made a big step towards fostering a more bilingual landscape. In November of 2016, California residents voted in a landslide to bring back bilingual education programs in the state: 73.52% said “yes” to California Non-English Languages Allowed in Public Education Act, or Proposition 58. Proposition 58, which will go into effect in July of 2017, repealed critical parts of the almost 20-year-old Proposition 227, or English Language in Public Schools Statute of 1998, which placed restrictions on many programs, like bilingual classes, aimed to help Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students in the public school system. While this policy specifically targets bilingual elementary education, it serves as a proxy for California’s tendency towards a more liberal politics that aims to serve its diverse population.


California is the most populous state in the nation with a count of 39,250,017 residents as of early 2016, per the US Census Bureau. A racially, ethnically, and nationally diverse group of people comprises this population: as of 2014, Latinos officially surpassed whites as the state’s ethnic majority. California has the second largest state Latino population in the country, following New Mexico. California residents also speak a wide array of languages: 43.9% of residents age 5 and above speak a language other than English at home (in descending order, these languages include Spanish, Chinese [Mandarin and Cantonese], Tagalog, Vietnamese, Korean, Armenian, and Farsi). Indeed, California has the largest population of non-English speaking residents in the country.


Proponents of Proposition 58 often point to these statistics: public school systems should reflect and support the population they serve. Proponents also cite studies that show the benefits of bilingual education for English language learners (ELLs). Not only do ELLs achieve English proficiency by middle school, but these bilingual students catch up, if not outperform, their monolingual peers in a number of academic tests. Bilingual children also have displayed better multitasking skills than monolingual children. Opponents of the bill worry that bilingual education will slow Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students’ mastery of English. However, research published since Proposition 227 has discounted some aspects of this concern. Considering all of these factors, California’s adoption of Proposition 58 serves as a statement of recognition and inclusion of the state’s diverse population, while specifically benefitting bilingual individuals.


Proposition 58, written by Ricardo Lara (D – CA), signals a move towards a more overt inclusion of different backgrounds. However, the specifics of the bill do not make clear how effective it will be in delivering its promises of inclusion. Notably, it contains no actionable provisions; it merely calls for the repeal of certain bilingual program restrictions. Proposition 227 did not technically prevent bilingual programs, but it did require parents to sign a waiver in order to keep their child in bilingual programs. Without this signature, LEP students were placed by default in English-only classrooms. Proposition 58, in doing away with the waiver rule and other barriers, removes many of the hoops that bilingual families have had to jump through in order for their children to have access to a bilingual education.


In the interim until this July, state officials and school district leaders must grapple with several questions: which schools will take on bilingual education programs? Local school districts may decide whether or not to offer bilingual programs individually, but Proposition 58 requires public schools to at least offer these programs if 20-30 parents request it. How much will these programs cost? Proponents of the proposition say that the state will not have to pay any more; school districts will just redistribute funds towards bilingual programs. Opponents argue that it will not be this simple– the programs will require extra funding. Where will the state find teachers qualified for these bilingual programs? The 1998 ban on bilingual education forced many bilingual teachers to other states, and bringing them back may be difficult. Further, since Proposition 58 does not force bilingual programs, it is difficult to predict exactly how many bilingual instructors will be necessary. Evidently, many critical questions about the implementation of bilingual programs go unanswered, and will likely remain this way until July, at least.


Proposition 58 comes at a fascinating time: the political leanings of California, notably those concerning immigration and sanctuary cities, are at odds with the nation’s. In the next few months, as California works to implement Proposition 58, it will be interesting to see if its inclusive intentions are translated into effective policy. The foreseeable future will determine whether California will serve as a trendsetter, or just an outlier for state politics that embrace a more diverse populace.


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