Voters to weigh in on having schools teach content in Spanish

California voters will choose whether to repeal an English-only policy in state classrooms. Proposition 58 allows schools to determine the language of instruction without parental or administrative consent.

Jessica Rodriguez first learned to say “Hello” instead of “Hola” when she entered kindergarten. While she started in an ESL (English as a Second Language) program, by elementary school she spoke English fluently.

But for Rodriguez, English came at a cost.

“By the time I was in high school, I wasn’t completely fluent in Spanish. I think bilingual education would have helped me maintain my Spanish,” said Rodriguez, now 18, and a freshman at Stanford University.

California is one of only four states – alongside Arizona, Massachusetts and New Hampshire – that restricts bilingual education. Yet California has the highest number of non-native English speakers than any other state.

Next week, California voters will choose whether to repeal this English-only policy. Proposition 58 allows schools to determine the language of instruction without parental or administrative consent.

Currently, under existing state law, public schools in California must teach all course material in English. That policy was put in place in 1998 after votes approved another ballot issue, Proposition 227. Before 1998, approximately 30 percent of California’s English learners participated in bilingual education programs. Today, only about 5 percent of California’s English learners enroll in bilingual programs, according to the California Department of Education.

“The reason that we argue for learning in his or her first language, is because you don’t want to retard the learning of content until the language is perfect,” said Guadalupe Valdes, a professor of education at Stanford University. “We really cannot be educated through a language we do not understand.” (EDITOR’S NOTE: Peninsula Press is a project of the Stanford Journalism Program in the Department of Communication.)

But Ron Unz, a Republican candidate for the 2016 California Senate who lost the primary election, opposes Proposition 58. Unz publicly supported Proposition 227 during his unsuccessful campaign for the governorship of California in 1998. He argues that the high population of non-native English speakers in California interferes with students from successfully utilizing both languages.

“The dual-immersion programs we are talking about are almost Spanish-only classes,” Unz said. “You could always find small bilingual education programs that might be successful, even individual schools, but so-called ‘bilingual education’ has never worked anywhere in America on a large scale.”

Riley Noland, a native English speaker from Modesto, recently graduated from a public school where one in four students identified as first-time English learners. Noland believes ESL programs have leveled the playing field.

“In terms of exams, there was probably a benefit for me to understand the questions better, but our school district had (ESL) programs to make sure (non-native English speaking) students were caught up and where they needed to be,” Noland said.

Sean Reardon, professor of poverty and inequality in education and professor (by courtesy) of sociology at Stanford University, believes that Proposition 58 accommodates advocates of both bilingual education and ESL by giving educators and families the flexibility to choose between the two curriculums.

“If the (bilingual education and ESL) programs are all roughly equally good, why not let the parents and school district decide based on its knowledge of the community?” Reardon said.

For first-time voter Rodriguez, the outcome of the upcoming ballot will affect her seventh-grade cousin Estefany who lives with Rodriguez’ family in Oakland. Next Tuesday, Rodriguez plans to vote in favor of Proposition 58.

“It will be helpful to students who are not familiar with the language,” Rodriguez said. “Their transition to the school and, more importantly, this country will be easier.”

(Homepage photo courtesy of Bryan McDonald on Flickr via Creative Commons)

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