10 Years After Prop. 227: Bilingual Education Still Hanging On

10 Years After Prop. 227: Bilingual Education Still Hanging On

SACRAMENTO – On June 2, California celebrates the 10th anniversary of Proposition 227, the “English for the Children” initiative many believed would end bilingual education in the state’s classrooms. While 227 has resulted in numerous positive changes, guerrilla warfare by bilingual-education adherents has ensured that bilingual education continues to be used to instruct hundreds of thousands of California students.

The brainchild of Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, Proposition 227 won by a landslide 61 to 39 percent. The initiative drastically limited bilingual education, replacing it with structured English immersion (SEI). Bilingual education emphasizes the use of English-learner (EL) students’ native language for instruction in core subjects, while SEI requires teachers to teach primarily in English.

California lacks a sophisticated student-achievement database, so it isn’t possible to say, on a statewide basis, whether bilingual education or SEI has been a more effective method for transitioning EL students to English fluency. Studies of school districts, however, have shown that Prop. 227’s reforms seem to be working.

A 2005 Lexington Institute study of the Orange and Atwater school districts found that the performance of EL students on the state English-language-development test improved significantly after the districts implemented SEI programs. Also, a multi-year study by the California Department of Education found that, “Many of the educators we interviewed concluded that the overall effect of [Proposition 227] on the ELs has been positive – frequently emphasizing that it cast a spotlight on ELs as an important subpopulation and on the methods of instruction used for these students.”

Despite this positive response, English Immersion or Law Evasion?, a new study from the Pacific Research Institute, raises serious concerns about how the law is being implemented in many classrooms. English Immersion or Law Evasion?, to be released June 2, also documents efforts to undermine the law itself.

Due to a loophole in 227, around eight percent of EL students continue to be taught through bilingual education. Of even greater concern, the state Department of Education study found that most school districts allowed “the use of [EL students’ native language] on an occasional or even frequent basis, at least under certain conditions,” in what were supposedly English-immersion settings. Thus, some teachers and administrators may claim that they are implementing 227’s mandate for English immersion, but in reality that implementation may be watered down, or simply bilingual education by a more politically acceptable name.

Further, some university teacher programs remain hotbeds of opposition to 227. In 2004 the then-chair of CSU Sacramento’s Bilingual Education/Multicultural Education Department (BMED) said: “You say the word ‘bilingual’ in a state that’s passed a proposition that has made it illegal, and we’re already in a political quagmire. We [the faculty] . . . promote bilingualism in a society that doesn’t promote it.” Unsurprisingly, the BMED currently uses its own anthology, Bilingual Education: Introduction to the Education of English Learners, for some of its courses. The publication includes a chapter by a BMED faculty member describing her fight to save bilingual-education programs in schools.

In the same publication, another author states that the “institutionalization of the English-speaking worldview in the United States” has resulted in all other cultural and ethnic groups being “systematically repressed and relegated to subordinate status.” The remedy, according to the author, is to turn out politicized minority teachers “who can speak and instruct [students] in their native language” and who can ensure the “cultural integrity of their own people.”

Prop. 227 is also undermined by government-funding incentives that give schools extra dollars for keeping students labeled as English-language learners. In response, Gov. Schwarzenegger’s Committee on Education Excellence recently recommended taking away the financial incentives to keep students in the EL ghetto.

When recently asked about his past support for Prop. 227, famed Stand and Deliver math teacher Jaime Escalante said: “The tremendous success I had at Garfield High School [in Los Angeles] was because I emphasized [English]. I used to say, ‘Unfortunately, the test comes in one language, and you have to master that language.’” To ensure that more students attain the success achieved by Escalante’s students, the state needs to ensure that the spirit and letter of 227’s emphasis on English is being implemented in California’s classrooms.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.