Do California parents want bilingual education?

California's Proposition 58 would make it easier to teach English learners in bilingual programs. Parents now see these programs as a way to retain cultural ties and boost children's success later in life.

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Rosalinda Gallegos guides a student through an assignment in her social studies class, which she conducts in Spanish, at Thomas Edison Elementary School in Glendale, Calif., on Oct. 24. The class is part of the Glendale Unified School District's dual-immersion program, a model that researchers increasingly say yields multiple benefits for English learners and native English speakers alike.

Bilingual education is back on the ballot in California. Do voters feel differently about the issue now than they did in 1998?

At present, the Golden State public schools are required to teach most English learners in English-only programs. In some circumstances, parents can request consideration for bilingual programs. By voting "yes" on Proposition 58, California voters would make it easier for schools to decide how they teach English learners, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the California legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal and policy advisor.

The reappearance of a proposition about bilingual education – and support for the measure in one poll – may be a sign that attitudes are changing, with parents increasingly seeing these programs as a means to retain cultural ties and guarantee children’s success later in life. 

“Californians know and value and understand the importance of having their students be multilingual, bilingual and multiliterate,” said Ricardo Lara, a state senator from Los Angeles County who sponsored the ballot measure. “And so we’re removing those barriers and ensuring that we … continue to have those dynamic programs in the state.”

An emphasis on the value of bilingual education would be a profound shift from 1998, when Latino parents led the charge calling for English language-only programs. At the time, around two-thirds of the state’s Latino voters supported the proposition, experts told The Christian Science Monitor. Parents wanted their children to learn fluent English, even if it came at the expense of retaining their Spanish skills.

Jorge Amselle, then a spokesman for the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington, D.C., think tank that focuses on issues of race and ethnicity, said the 1998 vote also “undermined the argument that immigrants don’t want to assimilate.”

But today, parents report finding that assimilation happens faster, in many cases, than they would like it to. Parents of the 45 percent of California students who speak a second language at home may believe that a "yes" vote on Prop. 58 in November will help their children retain those language skills — and ties to their home culture.

“In the past few decades, the emergence of identity politics has encouraged ethnic Americans to hold on to more than English,” wrote Fariba Nawa for the Monitor in 2011. Nawa, struggling to help her daughter retain her native Farsi once she went to school in the US, observed that many parents have been taking advantage of language-immersion schools to bridge that divide.

Latino families tend to stop speaking Spanish almost completely by the third generation, and speakers of other languages face similar pressures.

One reason for that: school tests that preference English and make bilingual students look less advanced in comparison.

“The avalanche of testing, given predominantly in English, has really pushed all schools to do more in English than I think is pedagogically appropriate,” Robert Petersen, who founded La Escuela Fratney, a bilingual, multicultural public K-5 school in Milwaukee, Wisc., in 1998, told NPR in 2014.

Some of California’s urban school districts have ignored the English-only law from the beginning, responding to growing Latino populations by continuing to teach in both languages. Would Prop. 58 provide a model for bilingual testing across the US, and offer a clearer look at bilingual educational achievement?

Parents nationwide increasingly see multilingualism as having tangible benefits beyond the classroom. A joint report by the Education Testing Service and the University of California, Los Angeles in 2015 found that children who grow up speaking two languages earn up to $5,000 more annually than those who speak only English. 

And that’s not the only advantage. These children – known as “balanced bilinguals” – are more likely to graduate from high school, attend college, and get good jobs, according to the researchers. “I always say, ‘You’re sitting on a potential gift,’” Ellen Bialystok, a cognitive neuroscientist who spent almost four decades researching the so-called "bilingual advantage," told The New York Times in 2011.

Speaking to the Foreign Language Summit in 2010, Education Secretary Arne Duncan was forthright about what he saw as the value of bilingualism, calling it “absolutely essential” to American economic prosperity and national security.

For English-speaking parents, bilingual classrooms may be a way to tap into some of that advantage. Secretary Duncan highlighted the success of the Chicago Public Schools Chinese language program, saying that the students will grow up “with a new world of opportunity ahead of them.”

In fact, businessman Ron Unz, who sponsored the English-only proposition in 1998, said these parents are the voters most likely to influence the outcome of the Prop. 58 vote in November. Mr. Unz himself remains a critic of Prop. 58, saying the 1998 English language-only program actually “created bilingual students” by teaching Spanish-speakers English.

Opponents note that test scores among Latinos rose after the English-only proposition passed. And some say that Prop. 58, by giving the local school district more of a role in deciding whether a bilingual program should be pursued, could reduce the say of parents. Under the current law, 20 parents in each grade must request bilingual education options before the school district can create such a class.

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