California voters poised to weigh in on decades-old English-only rule for schools

California voters are deciding Tuesday whether to repeal a nearly two-decade-old mandate that English learners be taught almost exclusively in English in school.

Proposition 58 would pave the way for more bilingual education by undoing a 1998 ballot measure requiring schools to use English immersion for students who are not fluent in English. About 30 percent of English learners were taught in bilingual programs before Proposition 227 passed in 1998.

Proponents say the measure would help expand so-called dual language immersion programs that mix English speakers and learners in the classroom and teach both groups two languages. The programs have been popular with parents who believe speaking two languages will help their children compete globally for jobs.

Opponents want to keep English immersion for California's 1.4 million English learners, saying they've fared better in school since the change.

Dual language programs aren't outlawed in the state — there are a few hundred. But to establish a program parents of English-learners must sign a waiver every year if they want their children to participate.

Educators say the paperwork makes it hard to get more programs started even as interest in learning Spanish, Mandarin and other languages has soared, in California and elsewhere.

Proposition 58 was proposed in the Legislature by state Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, a fellow Democrat. It required voter approval because it would alter 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.

Since then, the state's demographics have changed and Latinos now comprise 39 percent of the population, the most of any 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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