By Sabrina Holcomb
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Eighteen years ago, California voters chose to outlaw bilingual education in California. Now, a campaign largely led by California educators has put bilingual ed back on the ballot as Proposition 58—and that’s a smart move says fifth grade teacher Veronica Pinkney.
Pinkney teaches Spanish immersion classes in San Jose school district in the heart of Silicon Valley, the world-famous technology hub that, for many, represents the future of the planet.
“Companies here have to recruit employees from other countries laments Pinkney, “because sadly, our kids are only able to speak one language and can’t compete with international students who are multilingual.
As chair of the California Teachers Association (CTA) Language Acquisition Committee, Pinkney has had a front seat for the drama over California’s language program.
In 1998, amid rancorous debate and anti-immigrant resentment, voters passed Proposition 227, a ballot measure requiring all English Language Learners (ELLs) to be taught only in English. After one year in an ELL class, students were expected to have acquired sufficient academic English to transition to a mainstream class at their grade level.
The trouble is this expectation is highly unrealistic, say language experts. It takes three to five years for a student to become academically proficient in a new language. Students in English-only immersion classes may learn how to communicate faster, but they don’t understand the academic concepts, which leaves them further behind in school.
Enter Proposition 58, a new ballot measure some educators call the 227 antivirus. Also known as the LEARN (Language Education, Acquisition and Readiness Now) Initiative, Prop 58 makes English-only instruction a choice, not a mandate. By removing the English-only requirement, it allows public schools and parents the flexibility to choose language instruction programs tailored to the needs of students in their district.
With 1.4 million English language learners—one in five students—enrolled in California schools, language education is an urgent priority.
Working in concert with Senator Ricardo Lara, author of the bill, and various partner organizations, CTA members have organized around the ballot measure, raising broad-based support with local school boards, parents, and employers. In the weeks leading up to the election, more than 1,000 educators across the state have taken to the streets in a groundswell of get-out-the-vote activities—from precinct walking and phone banking to writing opinion editorials and speaking at local events.
Supporters of Prop 58 are cautiously optimistic. The latest CALSPEAKS survey shows that 59 percent of likely voters support the measure.
Today’s young parents understand that bilingual and dual immersion language programs benefit both native English and non-English speakers,” says Teresa Montaño, Vice President of CTA, and a professor of Chicano studies at California State University.
In fact, research shows that when students participate in programs taught in more than one language, they attain higher levels of achievement. Ironically, bilingual schools have become so sought after, says Montaño, some parents, including her own daughter, are lining up at midnight to take part in enrollment lotteries for their children.
Currently, two other states—Arizona and Massachusetts—have restrictions similar to California’s on bilingual education. “If Prop 58 passes, we’ll be the first state to reverse the trend,” Montano anticipates.
She remembers being punished for speaking Spanish at school and being embarrassed when her mother spoke Spanish at home, and she doesn’t want any other child to go through that ordeal.
“Instead of something to be ashamed of, multilingualism will be seen as an asset. Isn’t that a wonderful affirmation for our students?”