Proposition 58 certainly isn’t the highest-profile among the 17 ballot questions facing California voters this fall — those would probably be the proposals to repeal the death penalty or legalize marijuana.
It isn’t even the newsiest among the education propositions. That’s probably Prop. 55, which would extend a special tax on individual incomes over $250,000, most of it going to the state’s K-12 schools.
Yet the ballot question could have a huge impact on the state’s more than 1.5 million English-language learners at a time when immigration and the country’s relationship with Mexico have become hot-button topics. The outcome of the potentially pivotal vote is far from clear, despite very lopsided advocate support for the referendum.
(The 74’s Conor Williams: Linguistic Politics, and What’s at Stake in November With California’s ‘Multilingual Education Act’)
The question facing California voters is whether to overturn a 1998 referendum, Prop. 227, that limited how schools could teach English-language learners. English-language learners were to be placed in classes taught only in English, as opposed to bilingual classes. Parents of both native English speakers and English-language learners can petition for bilingual education for their children where it’s available, but only under limited circumstances.
Advocates say changing the law would return local control to districts and schools, let children learn English the way that best meets their needs, and open new opportunities for native English speakers to learn a second language.
Since the original proposition passed, there has been a chill put on the virtue of becoming bilingual, said Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, president of Californians Together, a coalition of 25 parent, professional and civil rights groups focused on English-language learners.
About 30 percent of English-language learners were taught in bilingual settings before the 1998 change, a number that has dropped to about 4 percent, she said.
“It’s been 18 years since Proposition 227 passed. We know a lot more about educating students to become bilingual and biliterate, and we think it’s time that the barriers that proposition created be modified so all students, in all districts” have access to multilingual programs, Spiegel-Coleman said.
Proponents for overturning the old rules span the ideological spectrum.
Teachers unions, civil rights groups, the state PTA, the California Chamber of Commerce and the state Democratic Party are all backing the measure. Even groups often not involved in education issues, like the Sierra Club of California and California Professional Firefighters, support the initiative. As of early October, more than $1 million had been raised to push Prop. 58, half a million dollars of that from the California Teachers Association, with the rest primarily from other unions and the state school administrators association.
The opposition, meanwhile, is limited largely to the state Republican and Libertarian parties and Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley software developer who bankrolled the original 1998 initiative. They haven’t spent any money, according to state campaign finance records.
Unz, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1994, launched an admittedly long-shot bid this spring to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer in order to bring attention to the issue.
A series of articles in the Los Angeles Times about “immigrant Latino parents” who started a public protest against an elementary school that refused to teach children English inspired Unz to push for Prop. 227 nearly 20 years ago, he said.
“The problem was that hundreds of thousands of immigrant children in California were not being taught English when they went to school,” he said.
The change to focus on English-only instruction “worked out perfectly well,” he said – children are learning English and test scores are up.
A 2006 study by the American Institutes for Research on behalf of the state education department found a slight decrease in the performance gap between English-language learners and native speakers. But the gap in test scores remained “virtually constant” across grades and subjects, and, the researchers noted, the Prop. 227 reforms were implemented at the same time as several others, including a reduction in class sizes.
“Across all analyses, little to no evidence of differences in [English-language learner] performance by model of instruction was found,” they wrote.
Unz blames the push to overturn Prop. 227 on a “small group of very zealous advocates of bilingual education” who “hoodwinked” politicians. Because California has term limits for its state lawmakers, the legislators who passed the 2014 bill pushing Prop. 58 to the ballot weren’t in office when the state considered the issue in 1998, he said.
“This whole vote, I think, is much more sort of a matter of symbolism, and a matter of basically ignorance, since the whole issue’s been totally forgotten, than anything that will have a major practical impact on California education,” he said.
He predicted that if schools change to emphasize bilingual education, parents will protest and districts will have to revert to the current system, with its emphasis on English instruction.
“I am very skeptical there will be any major changes in educational policy in the state, regardless of how the vote goes in November,” he said.
A big change in L.A.
One of the districts where a change could have the largest impact is the Los Angeles Unified School District.
About 27 percent of the 558,000 students in K-12 district schools at any given point are classified as English-language learners. An additional 25 to 27 percent were formerly English-language learners, so more than half of the district’s students either currently are, or at one point were, classified as ELLs, said Hilda Maldonado, executive director of multilingual and multicultural education.
The district provides a range of options for ELLs, from the required English-language immersion classes that educate about 85 percent of them to a variety of bilingual offerings.
All students, regardless of which program they attend, are required to prove their English literacy skills — at grade level — within five years of beginning the program, Maldonado said. The district five years ago entered into an agreement with the federal Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights to improve outcomes for English-language learners who weren’t meeting that benchmark.
“We have found that it potentially is taking these kids a lot longer to learn English in these all-English programs, and we’ve had to put in place additional services, additional courses, so we can catch them up” and comply with the agreement with the federal government, Maldonado said.
Maldonado is already looking to see how the district could expand bilingual education if Prop. 58 passes, starting by trying to recruit bilingual certified teachers. She’s working with the district’s HR department to take stock of existing teachers and implement incentives for bilingual para-educators to get fully certified. The district will also look for existing teachers who speak a second language but are credentialed in another subject to also get the bilingual certification.
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Offering more bilingual education will help teachers understand why English-language learners aren’t grasping content, whether it’s trouble understanding English or the underlying subject matter.
“Maybe they can take algebra in Spanish and pass it, because algebra is algebra,” she added.
Maldonado is herself an English-language learner, having come to the U.S. at age 11.
“I think the world is so much smaller now than it used to be. Being bilingual or multilingual really just puts us into the current 21st century in a way that values everyone rather than divides them,” she said.
The result of the vote will likely depend heavily on how informed voters are about what the proposition would do – primarily, that it would overturn Prop. 227.
A poll conducted in September found high support for Prop. 58, with 69 percent of those surveyed backing the measure, but only as long as they were presented with the official ballot language. (A separate poll in April found the exact same result, 69 percent, with similar ballot language.)
The change comes, though, when respondents are informed that Prop. 58 would repeal the part of Prop. 227 that requires classes to be taught almost exclusively in English. When given that information, 51 percent of respondents opposed Prop. 58. Republicans, independents and white respondents were particularly likely to change their minds when presented with that additional information.
Unz thinks that given the official ballot language — which doesn’t mention overturning part of Prop. 227 — and the deluge of other races and ballot questions vying for voters’ attention, many Californians will vote in favor of Prop. 58 by mistake.
“The impression I have is, very few Californians even know there are two people running for the U.S. Senate right now,” Unz said of the race between Attorney General Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez, both Democrats. “If that’s gotten no attention, then one of 17 initiatives isn’t really getting any attention either.”
Proponents, too, face the same problem of overwhelmed voters.
Spiegel-Coleman said advocates will work through the scores of groups that have endorsed the initiative, as well as an increasing number of endorsements from major newspapers across the state, to raise awareness. They’ll also probably run some ads on radio, she said.
“The issue is really letting people know that it exists and see their way down the ballot and vote yes on it,” she said.