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California overwhelmingly repeals English-only law opening doors for bilingual education

California voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly repealed a nearly two-decade-old law that limited bilingual education in public schools.

Proposition 58 had about 73 percent support with 3.5 million votes counted.

The measure undoes a 1998 law requiring schools to use English immersion for most students not fluent in the language. Supporters said the old law was tinged with racism and that letting English learners study in two languages alongside English speakers helps both groups better prepare for the workforce.

"I am elated that close to 20 years later we get to right this incredible wrong," said state Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, who proposed the measure. "I am grateful to the voters of California for understanding our kids need to be multilingual and this is a tool they're going to need to be competitive in a global economy."

Opponents argued that forcing students to learn English quickly is beneficial and that the state's 1.4 million English learners had fared better in school since Proposition 227 was passed nearly 20 years ago.

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Proponents say the new measure will help expand so-called dual language immersion programs that mix English speakers and learners in the classroom and teach both groups two languages.

There are already a few hundred of these programs in California. But parents of English learners must sign a waiver every year for their children to participate, which educators say makes it hard to get programs started even as interest in learning Spanish, Mandarin and other languages has soared in the state and elsewhere.

Proposition 58 was proposed in the state Legislature by Lara and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, a fellow Democrat. It required voter approval because it alters a previous ballot measure approved by voters.

The state Democratic Party, California Teachers Association and California Chamber of Commerce supported the measure. Opponents included the state Republican Party and businessman Ron Unz, who sponsored the 1998 initiative amid a backlash to a rise in immigration in California.

Unz said he was not pleased with the outcome of the vote but doubted many students would be affected since so many have thrived by learning English through immersion. Some Spanish-speaking students will likely be routed to dual language immersion programs that are gaining popularity with English speaking families, but not most, he said.

"I don't really view it as being that significant a development in terms of California education," he said.

Before 1998, about 30 percent of English learners were taught in bilingual programs, which varied in structure and were often comprised solely of English learners.

Since then, the state's demographics have changed and Latinos now comprise 39 percent of the population, more than any other group. California is among more than 20 states that offer a seal of biliteracy to high school graduates who master more than one language.

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