Bilingual Education is Back

Animated children with speech bubbles above their heads. Each speech bubble has the greeting "hello" written in different languages.

Image credit: Shutterstock

Eighteen years ago, California voters passed Proposition 227, a ruling ending nearly all bilingual education in the state. Critics of bilingual instruction claimed that it delayed reading, writing, and English fluency among children for whom English is a second language to be taught in both. Parents could sign a waiver and seek out a bilingual school if they wanted to, but the default was made English-only.

Nearly two decades later, studies of ELL (English-language-learning) students show that there’s no developmental delay to having bilingual instruction. In fact, it actually has huge social development advantages. And those studies have led to the decision facing voters today; Proposition 58, if it passes in November, will restore instruction in English and a second language as an option at all schools.

This is a particularly Californian need in education. California residents are nearly twice as likely as the general American population to speak a language other than English. Primarily, this language is Spanish, but there are substantial Chinese and Japanese populations as well.

The history of Prop 227, the bilingual ban, is interesting. Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley millionaire, was the prime force in campaigning for it, alongside a group of students and families who called themselves Familias Del Pueblo. They claimed that bilingual educational programs were a form of segregation and did little to prepare Spanish-speaking students for college or careers where they would be required to speak only English. Unz argued that ELLs only needed a single, high-intensity year of English instruction before moving on to English-only classrooms. After the proposition passed, test scores among Latino students rose, and supporters saw that as proof of their platform.

But by 2015, ELL test scores and scholastic achievements in California had diminished so much that a group of civil rights group won a precedent-setting suit against the state for failing to support ELLs. Prop 58, overturning Prop 227, is expected to pass quietly and be enacted at the beginning of the next school year.

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