California to Reconsider Bilingual Education

For almost twenty years, English-language learners in California schools have been taught exclusively in English as a result of Proposition 227, a citizen initiative which directed public schools to teach students with limited English proficiency through a short-term immersive English language program with the goal of placement in the appropriate mainstream courses taught in English. However, the Sacramento Bee reports voters will have the opportunity to overturn that this fall through Proposition 58, which would allow districts to put bilingual programs in place after consulting with the community.

In 2014, the legislature approved SB 1174—the “California Education for a Global Economy Initiative” —thus placing it on the ballot for the public to decide in November. Proposition 58, if approved by the voters, would repeal the language prohibiting coursework being taught in other languages in public schools. Rather, districts would have the ability to develop their own programs for acquiring English and offering dual-language programs, while still preserving the requirement that all schools work towards English proficiency in all students.

Senator Lara, the bill’s sponsor, stated in a 2014 press release issued when the bill was signed that, “Children who participate in multilingual immersion programs not only outperform their peers in the long run, they also have higher earning potential when they enter the workforce. The time to revisit this Proposition is long overdue and we look forward to a spirited discussion on the importance of multilingual education leading up to 2016."

Proponents of English-only programs argue that it does students a disservice—English is the predominant language in the United States, and academic achievement rides on that linguistic foundation. They argue that multilingual students can preserve their skills in other languages at home, but that schools should focus on giving students the skills they need to succeed, which require a strong command of English.

Advocates for bilingual programs, which could take many forms, say that their opponents don’t see the big picture—we live in a multicultural world that sees multilingualism as an asset in the workforce. Students taught in multiple languages can attain the same academic achievements as their counterparts, they argue.

Conversations about education circling the topics of English learners, bilingualism, and immersion programs aren’t exclusive to California. Summaries of recent state legislative action in relation to these topics can be found on the Education Commission of the State’s State Policy Database. Examples of recent state policy changes include creating bilingual distinctions and awards for students, feasibility studies for bilingual programs, and special provisions for the assessment of English-language learners.

At a community level, many schools and districts are taking a fresh look at global education. For instance, Washington, D.C. Public Schools send public school students abroad for free through its Global Education program, which emphasizes cultural competence and language acquisition.