California is one of the most linguistically diverse states in the nation, and its schools echo its ethnic mix. Less than 60 percent of California’s residents speak English as their native language, according to 2007 census data, and some 43 percent of families in the state’s public-school system speak a language other than English in the home, with the second-most spoken language being Spanish. The result of this polyglot population is the vibrant cultural heterogeneity for which the state is famous—but it also means that English-language learners now make up about 22 percent of the public-school system. That works out to 1.4 million kids who need extra language help.
Since 1998, however, California parents who have wanted their children to learn in bilingual classrooms have had to petition for a special waiver—a barrier that many say is not only unnecessary but also highly politicized. That year, the state’s voters passed Proposition 227, which sharply curtailed access to bilingual programs, while tracking English learners into classes primarily taught in English. Immigrant children were placed automatically in “overwhelmingly English” instruction (using various forms of so-called “sheltered English immersion” or “nearly all” English instructional formats) for a year before being “mainstreamed.”
This November, Californians will decide whether the state’s “English-only” system should stay or go. Advocates for this year’s ballot measure, Proposition 58, say the old rules are outdated, and are pushing the state to try out some of the many new approaches to bilingual education that have been developed over the past two decades. It’s no coincidence that the language debate is again on the ballot in another election year fueled by controversies around immigration. For progressive-education advocates, the struggles of English learners in California’s classroom have become inseparable from the politics surrounding their communities. Are they speaking Californians’ language?
English-Only’s Political Subtext
While education reform is always a fraught issue on both the political left and right, Proposition 227 was particularly polarizing. The political symbolism behind the system-wide policy of prioritizing “English only” instruction spoke to a certain nativist undercurrent threading through California’s electorate. The measure was passed in the wake of other right-wing referendum victories, including initiatives to abolish affirmative action in higher education, and to block undocumented children from public schools.
Under the morally unassailable banner of “English for the Children,” the Prop 227 campaign, led by Silicon Valley mogul and conservative activist Ron Unz, presented English-only not as an attack on immigrant children’s education but rather as an educational boon for immigrant families. The proposition’s proponents pointed to the glaring and very real educational achievement gaps between native English-speaking students and immigrant kids, which they said were caused by segregating English learners into substandard and separate classes. Prominent Latino endorsers, including super-teacher Jaime Escalante (the inspiration for the film Stand and Deliver), helped frame the ballot measure as—in Unz’s words—“both pro-immigrant and politically nonpartisan.”