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Prop. 58 would undo limitations on bilingual education

San Gabriel teacher Jenny Tan helps a student who's been in the U.S. less than a year learn the basics of English.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC
San Gabriel teacher Jenny Tan helps a student who's been in the U.S. less than a year learn the basics of English.

On a recent afternoon in San Gabriel's McKinley Elementary School, a class full of students who arrived in the United States less than a year ago practiced their English language skills.

They are third, fourth and fifth-graders, but the English lessons are at a kindergarten level. 

Most of these students are able to write full compositions in their native languages, said the school's principal, Jim Symonds. So the ideal approach would be to continue teaching them in their native language to keep their brains stimulated while folding in English language instruction.

"If we could spend more time teaching them in their native language and working on that proficiency and getting to those higher level thinking skills, I think they’d be that much further ahead academically and be able to pick up English faster," Symonds said. 

But current state law prevents the school from teaching them using those methods. 

Instead, the English in Public Schools Initiative, which California voters approved in 1998, requires that the students spend one year in a sheltered class like this one, taking all of their classes in English, before transitioning to mainstream classes at their grade level. 

Proposition 58, on California general election ballot, would remove those limits on native language instruction. The measure would directly affect instruction for the state's 1.3 million English learners and indirectly for those students whose parents want them to be bilingual. 

The initiative has drawn wide support from educators who point to research in the last decade that suggests young people who learn multiple languages improve their brain’s ability to focus and manage several tasks at the same time, which are the keys to learning.

It's also supported by dozens of Democratic elected officials, the California Association for Bilingual Education, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, the Advancement Project, and the think tank EdTrust West.

The proposition's strongest opponent is the man who created the bilingual education limits through Prop. 227, the original ballot measure passed 18 years ago. 

“Bilingual education is dead and it’s not coming back,” said Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who authored and funded Prop. 227.

At the time Prop. 227 made it on the ballot, more than 400,000 students were enrolled in bilingual education programs in California schools.

“The old system put hundreds of thousands – a good fraction of a million students – in a program where they were not taught English as soon as they started school,” Unz said.

Some of the bilingual education programs immersed students in their native language – largely Spanish – while dual immersion programs focused on Spanish instruction and built up English gradually from the early grades. At the time, many Californians were worried about increasing levels of immigration and were concerned about how newly-arrived students were acclimating to their schools. 

Unz and others seized on the failings of some bilingual programs to underline that many students languished without properly learning English and transitioning to standard classes.

Supporters of Prop. 58 don't disagree entirely.

“The programs were literally all over the place,” said Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, dean of the University of California Los Angeles Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. “Each district, each school seemed to have its own set of priorities and rules and predilections when it came to bilingual education.”

Prop. 227, he said, was a political response to the failings of bilingual education that largely eliminated bilingual education rather than find what was working.

But a lot has changed in California since Prop. 227. Latinos are now the state's largest ethnic group while Latino representation in Sacramento has also increased. Bilingualism has become accepted as a point of cultural pride while the changing workforce has put a premium on workers who speak multiple languages.  

“We now know in California, that it’s not just a cool thing to have your child be bilingual, we actually know that it’s important for our children to have more than one language early on,” said University of Southern California education researcher Gisele Ragusa.

The new measure would keep the current English immersion programs as a minimum requirement for English learners, but would allow school districts to create their own bilingual education programs as they see fit to serve those students.

The measure would also allow schools to use as much of a student’s native language as they see fit to support a student’s learning.

If the state's English learner students have struggled because state rules limit the amount of native language support, the lifting of those limits by Proposition 58 could improve their learning at a time when there’s a deep achievement gap between most English learners and their white and Asian counterparts.

Many students struggle in an environment in which they have to abandon the familiarity of their native language.

“If we say to them, when you come to school you can’t speak the language you’ve been speaking for four years, five years, three years at home, we are sending messages to them that the language of power isn’t their own and it’s incredibly discriminatory,” Ragusa said.

If Californians pass the ballot measure, future classes for students learning English might look something like the dual language program that exists at McKinley Elementary School just down the hall from the newcomer class. 

Under the current law, courses can be taught in more than one language if the parents of each child participating in the program sign a waiver.

McKinley started such a program for Spanish three years ago, and the students enrolled are a mix of English learners and native English speakers. 

Teacher Consuelo Gomez and an aide walk around a kindergarten classroom helping students recognize basic Spanish words by asking them to identify pictures. The question and answer between teacher and student is sometimes in Spanish, and sometimes a mixture of English and Spanish.

The approach, principal Symonds said, is to gradually build up these kids' mental ability to learn two languages.

In kindergarten, the instruction is 90 percent in Spanish and 10 percent in English, Symonds said. The amount of instruction in English gradually increases each year as students progress through elementary school, until roughly half of class time is spent in English and half in Spanish.

"We’re immersing them in two languages," he said. "We’re looking at the long term picture of student achievement. The gains, we’re not going to start seeing until the upper grades and into high school," he said. 

The current bilingual education limits, Symonds said, are like a timer that forces kids to sink or swim in their new language without the lifeline of their native language. The only clock that should be ticking, he said, is kids' ability to learn.

"Kids evolve naturally, and you know, some countries that we know don’t start reading until they’re six or seven years old," he said.

Whether or not the limits on bilingual education are lifted will be up to voters in November.

Still have questions? Here's more analysis on Proposition 58.

Series: California Counts

California Counts is a collaboration of KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio to report on the 2016 election. The coverage focuses on major issues and solicits diverse voices on what's important to the future of California.

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #CACounts.