PROP. 227



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Prop 227


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Background | Proposal | Arguments for | Arguments against

An initiative statute that ends bilingual education and proposes English-immersion programs for limited-English proficient students.

In California, the struggle between those urging linguistic diversity and those advocating a single common language is as old as statehood itself. The original 1849 state constitution was published in two languages - English and Spanish. A few decades later, a revised constitution included the nation's first "English Only" provisions. More recently, California voters have passed "English Only" ballot propositions by lopsided margins, even as increased immigration from around the world turns Los Angeles County into a linguistic smorgasbord.

Nowhere are these linguistic tensions more intense than in the public schools. Nearly 1.4 million public school students - a quarter of all students statewide - are identified as having "limited English proficiency" (LEP). Nearly 60 different languages are represented among these students, with nearly 80 percent speaking Spanish as their primary language. The problem: How to help these children learn English without having them fall too far behind their classmates in other subjects, such as reading, math and social studies. The best-known, and most controversial, means of providing this assistance is through bilingual education.

Several different approaches are used in schools, but services are usually provided in one of three ways; by specifically teaching students English during a part of the school day; through the use of special materials or aides to make standard classroom lessons more comprehensible to non-English speakers; or, by teaching students in their native language. Bilingual education was the law in California throughout the 1970s and '80s, but the programs themselves became more and more controversial.

Critics of the program claimed bilingual students weren't getting enough instruction in English, and that it was taking years to "mainstream" them. Supporters of bilingual education, meanwhile, complained there weren't enough bilingual teachers to make the program work. In 1987, a legislative stalemate precipitated by the clash of these orthodoxies caused the state's bilingual education law to lapse. A state mandate remained in place until a court decision earlier this year which, if upheld makes the program optional for districts.

Since the 1987 law sunsetted, lawmakers have tried repeatedly to bridge the gulf between bilingual advocates and those who favor a "sink or swim" approach to English and educational instruction. The most recent legislative attempt, a bipartisan effort stalled in the Assembly thanks to opposition from the legislature's Latino Caucus and then-Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante. As the political maneuvering continued, parents and educators became more and more frustrated. Some 100 school districts dropped their bilingual programs, mostly because they have neither the money nor the qualified instructors to maintain them. Statewide, only about a third of all LEP students receives any instruction in their native tongue.

Meanwhile, immigrant parents became increasingly dissatisfied with their children's lack of progress learning English. That aggravation boiled over two years ago when Latino parents at Los Angeles Unified's Ninth Street Elementary School boycotted the school. The parents maintained the school's bilingual program was hurting their children, and they wanted more English immersion classes. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, a one-time gubernatorial primary challenger to Governor Pete Wilson, took an interest, and with the help of English immersion advocate Gloria Matta Tuchman, developed Proposition 227. To date, Unz has contributed roughly $600,000 of his own money to the effort, accounting for roughly two-thirds of the total spending to date.

Proposition 227, dubbed by supporters as the "English for the Children" initiative, mandates that, except where exemptions have been granted, bilingual education is prohibited, and all public school instruction will be conducted in English only. Limited English proficient students would be placed in one-year sheltered English immersion classes and then mainstreamed into regular classes. Students above the age of ten could receive lessons in a language other than English if permission triggered by parental request is granted, and all parties to the child's education agree he or she would be better served in a bilingual program. Existing appropriations for bilingual education would be maintained, with the bulk of the money transferring over to the English immersion program. The measure also provides for $50 million a year for ten years to train adults to tutor LEP students in English.

Arguments for:
The primary supporter and financial contributor to the measure is Unz. He is joined by English immersion advocate Tuchman, the California Republican Party, and Jaime Escalante, the Latino teacher profiled in the movie "Stand and Deliver." Supporters argue children, particularly those at younger ages, are easily transitioned into English if they are immersed in the language. They say bilingual education based on native-language instruction reinforces the native language, rather than providing the necessary English language skills. Too few children move out of bilingual programs each year, they contend, for the program to be considered successful. The importance of English proficiency for economic and social success, they say, justifies an emphasis on these language skills, and any setback in learning in other subjects is, will be, they argue, temporary. They also maintain that if bilingual programs are supported by parents and are proven to be working, the initiative allows them to continue.

Arguments against:
Opponents of the initiative include a number of education groups, among them the California Teachers Association, the California PTA, California School Boards Association, and the Los Angeles Unified School District. A number of Latino activist groups, such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, also oppose the measure. They contend bilingual programs are working, and the extent to which they don't is more a function of the lack of qualified teachers than of any inherent flaw in the system. They argue the measure's supporters understate the time it takes to gain fluency, and without the help, students will fall farther and farther behind in other subjects. Opponents further argue the initiative's broad-brush approach will throw out good bilingual programs along with the bad, as the waiver system is too complex and restrictive. Teachers worry they will be held personally liable if they continue to provide dual-language instruction. Critics also say that, like the 1996 affirmative action initiative, Proposition 209, the Unz initiative is an attempt to "scapegoat" minority populations by attacking programs that help them advance.

-- Article by Steve Scott

This page first published May 5, 1998

Last updated May 25, 1998

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