Williams: Linguistic Politics, and What’s At Stake In November with California’s ‘Multilingual Education Act’

As the presidential primaries enter their hothouse phase, one 2016 election lesson is clear: the United States’ demographic shifts are more politically important now than in other recent contests. Of course, this new diversity has been coming for some time — much of it driven by immigration patterns and low birth rates among native-born Americans.
In 2014, students of color became a majority of the enrollment in the country’s schools. Since 1990, children of immigrants constitute 100 percent of the growth in the number of young children in the United States. Nearly one in three Head Start students speaks a non-English language at home.
The rise of revanchist xenophobia on the campaign trail — currently embodied in Donald Trump’s campaign — isn’t new either. American concern over immigrant integration is an old, cyclical story. To a degree, November’s election will be a referendum on how the country should respond to its growing diversity: Are immigrant families best understood as problems, or in terms of their potential?
Fittingly, in California, the campaign season will include a subplot — and perhaps a denouement — from one of the last rounds of American immigration anxiety. In 1998, Californians anxious about a recent influx of immigrants passed Proposition 227, a ballot measure that mandated English immersion for nearly all of the states’ multilingual students. This year, as the country argues over whether to build a wall on our southern border, Californians will vote on the Multilingual Education Act, a new ballot initiative that would update and improve Prop.  227 by expanding the availability of bilingual education models (including popular dual-immersion programs) for English language learners.
The new initiative is the result of a 2014 bill, “The California Education for a Global Economy Initiative” (“The Ed.G.E. Initiative”) drafted by State Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens). The bill maintains English instruction programs, but also empowers parents “to choose a language acquisition program that best suits their child” and requires districts with sufficient numbers of English language learners (ELLs) to launch the multilingual programs with parents’ support. It only takes effect if approved by voters this November.
The Ed.G.E. Initiative would affect a large number of students. Fully 1.4 million California students are classified as ELLs, which is about 23 percent of the state’s K-12 student population. Or, to slice it another way: California enrolls about one-third of the United States’ ELLs. Before Prop. 227, around 29 percent of the state’s ELLs were enrolled in bilingual education. That dropped to 11 percent in 2000 and is currently around 5 percent.
These children are the state’s future workers, taxpayers and homebuyers. “Ultimately,” writes USC demographer Dowell Myers, “the most feasible path to continued California prosperity is to invest in the economic productivity of our youth.”
So: how can schools help these young, multilingual students reach their full potential?
There is little evidence that the move to more English instruction supported better results for ELLs. In many cases, it consigned them to low-rigor coursework and content-light English-immersion classes. Research consistently shows that these students do best when they’re taught both in English and their home languages. Bilingual education programs help ELLs access high-level academic content, develop critical thinking skills, learn English, continue improving their home language and — yes — earn more money as adults.
Some of the best of these programs enroll both ELLs who speak a non-English language at home and native English-speaking students. These classrooms are set up to build everyone’s bilingualism by making the most of the complementary language abilities of all students. Multilingual education is good for students and the California community.
Will the Ed.G.E. Initiative pass? Well, many things have changed since 1998. Exit polls showed that Hispanics opposed the measure, and there are more of them in California now. But the climate around multilingual education is shifting as well. Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot Public Schools and Future is Now Schools (and a possible Los Angeles mayoral candidate) says that times have changed. “What a dramatic swing we’ve had in the past 15 to 20 years…there’s a real draw towards being multilingual.”
Barr also notes that the prevalence of high-performing schools of choice has helped to raise some Hispanic parents’ expectations for what schools can be. “Now, in Los Angeles, you have Green Dots and [other charter schools] in almost every neighborhood. You have these great examples,” says Barr. “And you have a whole generation of activists. I think there’s a more vocal activism which is so healthy.”
However, empowered parents and expanded multilingual options in California schools are only two pieces of the puzzle. UCLA professor Patricia Gándara explains that the new ballot initiative’s effects will be limited unless California gets serious about rebuilding its career pathways for bilingual teachers. “Without the teachers, it will be impossible to take advantage of [the ballot initiative],” Gándara wrote in an email. “The annual credentialing of bilingual teachers in California has fallen to one-third of what it was a decade ago. And the numbers continue to drop. Today we have 85,000 individuals who graduated high school in California with a seal of biliteracy. Why are we not encouraging them into teaching and bilingual teaching?”
This is a major challenge: bilingual teachers are in short supply everywhere. And policies allowing parents to choose bilingual education are toothless if there aren’t enough teachers to offer those programs in the first place. If the Ed.G.E. Initiative passes, California policymakers must make the establishment of strong career pathways for multilingual teachers an immediate priority.
So: what does all of this mean for our beautifully plural, increasingly diverse national experiment? The Republican Party’s prolonged dance with Trump’s bile is twirling it ever further from the younger, more diverse crowd of voters it needs to attract to have a chance at taking back the White House this fall. Interestingly, Trump’s rise is partly proof of — and reaction to — the United States’ changing demographics. Much of his support has come from white Americans who find the country’s growing diversity unsettling.
And yet, like most emotions stirred by the color of others’ skins, Trump’s energy — and that of his fan base — is misplaced.
The human faces driving these demographics shifts — young children, many with immigrant parents — are best understood as resources, not as threats. As Myers notes, California is lucky to have these students. States that are less attractive to immigrants (my native Midwest, for instance) are struggling to maintain their populations in the present, which bodes ill for their tax bases in the future.
Fortunately, the Ed.G.E. Initiative gives Californians the chance to improve their schools for ELLs and native English-speakers alike by increasing their opportunities to become bilingual. This isn’t just about helping them succeed in school. It’s, as Lara’s bill puts it, about making all California students “more competitive in a global economy.” And that — surely — is the sort of market-based payoff that even a blustery, demagogic New York real estate mogul can understand.

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