California voters won't just be voting for a new president and a new U.S. Senator today, they will also choose the language their children can be taught in.
Residents throughout the state will be able to overturn legislation passed nearly 20 years ago that mandated that all students, including first-generation immigrants, be taught in English.
That measure, Proposition 227, made it so that all schoolchildren in the process of learning English had to take all non-language courses in English – a single-language immersion program – rather than a bilingual education in which subjects like math or history are taught in languages other than English.
But Proposition 58, on the ballot today, would restore bilingual education.
“Kids in immersion programs might learn English, but they drag way behind in material and curriculum,” Cheryl Ortega, teaching director of bilingual education for the union United Teachers Los Angeles and a supporter of the new bill, told Fox News Latino.
“If students start learning material in their own language, they capture it more rapidly than if taught in words they don’t understand.”
Not everybody feels that way. Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley tycoon who initiated and bankrolled Proposition 227, wrote an opinion piece in the Sacramento Bee last month in which he argued, "partly because of our initiative, Latino students are doing much better academically."
He added that because of the law's success, "the founding president of the California Association of Bilingual Educators admitted he’d been wrong for 30 years and became a convert to English immersion."
In endorsing California voters to vote yes on Proposition 58, the Los Angeles Times said, "There’s a difference between bilingual education done badly and bilingual education done right."
What the state had before 1998, it argued, was poorly executed. Under the new ballot measure, the Times said, "Parents would be more empowered under the initiative to have a voice in their children’s education than they were under the old system, and they’re unlikely to settle for programs that aren’t teaching their children English skills."
It is a matter of some importance as the number of English language learners in California is sizeable. They make up 22 percent of the state’s students, but are among the lowest performers on state tests.
Studies have found that each language group has different levels of academic success. Latinos make up 84 percent of English language learners and are performing poorest, possibly due to access to supplemental help outside school.
Hardly any fuss was made about Proposition 58 when it was introduced by state Sen. Ricardo Lara. That's not a surprise given it shares a place on the ballot with 17 other propositions ranging from abolishing the death penalty to banning plastic bags.
That is in stark contrast to its predecessor, which 18 years ago unleashed floodgates of debate and anger. It inspired a $6 million advertising battle that was tinged with anti-immigrant and nationalist sentiment that capped four years of anti-immigration laws.
“Many people think differently than they did before,” said Ortega said of the current political landscape. “We are more broad-minded.”
The stated goal of Unz's original bill was to help English language learners who were falling behind in school. Some students never seemed to transition fully into English, charged Spanish-speaking parents who boycotted Ninth Street Elementary school over the issue.
Although civil rights groups tried to get an injunction against the measure and Latino students staged walkouts over it, the proposition was upheld by courts after being approved handily by 61 percent of voters.
“All opponents of said initiative would destroy the education system,” Unz said at the time, adding that English-language learners performed better in immersion classes, and promised that the measure would prevent immigrant students from languishing in native language classes and never learning English.
Today, he argues that thanks to Proposition 227, "more Latinos than whites have been admitted to the prestigious University of California."
In truth, it is hard to say whether the measure actually helped students.
There were substantial increases in test scores at first, but academic reports evaluating the English-only law point out that other initiatives passed at that time – smaller class sizes, increased accountability measures – also greatly impacted student performance.
One thing is certain: English learners are currently struggling on state tests, and Spanish speakers score among the lowest in that population.Part of that may have to do with how the law was implemented.
In one study, researchers found that 10 years after Proposition 227 passed, thanks to the vague language of the measure, it was applied differently at different schools within one school district.
Schools with strong bilingual programs kept running them and encouraged parents to enroll in those programs. Schools with nonexistent or struggling programs used the measure as a reason to disband them. To fulfill other school reforms passed around that same time, additional teachers were hired — many of whom were young and inexperienced with non-English speaking students.
Evaluating English learning students is also challenging because of how students are reclassified from English learners to English speakers varies from district to district.
One study found that a student that came in as a non-English speaking student in Kindergarten had anywhere from a 24 percent to 64 percent chance of being reclassified, which is a huge amount of variability.
Ortega believes that giving schools and parents flexibility in how they teach their kids, rather than requiring a one-size-fits-all model, may help level the playing field.
“There is no downside of being multilingual,” she said. “Why would someone not want their child to know more than one language? Except that people think they won’t learn English which is not correct.”
Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.