Why ‘English first’ language education is on the ballot

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To understand language education in California’s schools in 2016, one needs to go back to 1998 when California voters passed Proposition 227. The initiative required public schools in the state to follow an “English First” approach to language education for students who weren’t fluent in English. It also required them to move as quickly as possible from limited-bilingual education classes to full English instruction.

No other school system in California was more affected by Proposition 227’s passage than the Los Angeles Unified School District, because of the sheer number of students in the LAUSD who don’t speak English at home and aren’t fluent in the language when they begin their educational lives.

“On average, LAUSD receives about 150,000 students annually who are non-English speakers,” said Hilda Maldonaldo, who directs multilingual language programs for the LAUSD.

When Proposition 227 passed, she was a classroom teacher and remembers how the issue of bilingual education split public opinion, including her own school. 

“The school staff itself was very divided during that time because a certain percentage of the staff really believed strongly in bilingual education and another group of teachers was very pro English only education,” said Maldonado. “And in the the middle of it all were large group of immigrant families and children who were confused over what should be their choice.”

Hilda Maldonado directs multilingual language education in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Born in Mexico, she recalls her own struggles to master English in elementary school. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But language education in California schools might change again because of Proposition 58 on the November ballot.

If Prop 58 passes, it would roll back Prop 227, allowing English as a second students to stay in bilingual classes longer. Parents also wouldn’t need to sign a waiver to place their children in bilingual education classes, which they currently need to do to meet Prop 227 requirements.

Supporters say this will help thousands of students who are struggling to make the transition to classes exclusively in English.

But Prop 58 critics say eliminating an English first approach to instruction and extending students’ time in bilingual classes will only make it more difficult for children to master English and assimilate into American society.

A first grade class for limited-English Spanish speakers at the LAUSD’s Cahuenga Elementary School. Although still being instructed in Spanish, Proposition 227 requires these students to transition as quickly as possible to fully English instruction. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

However, while the debate over bilingual education continues, a new kind of language instruction has emerged in California public schools. It’s called dual-language immersion and it emphasizes teaching students two languages simultaneously  over the course of their education. The goal is to make the students fully bilingual by the time they graduate.

At the LAUSD’s Cahuenga Elementary School, dual language programs exist in both Spanish and English and Korean and English, with the students getting half of their education in each language. Although many Korean-American students are in the Korean and English dual-language classes, there are also Anglo, African-American and Latino students.

A Korean-English dual language immersion class at the LAUSD’s Cahuenga Valley Elementary School. Unlike bilingual programs, which involve building a gradual bridge to English fluency, dual-language instruction emphasizes learning two languages simultaneously. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Currently, the LAUSD has 65 dual language immersion programs with the students learning in English and either Spanish, Korean or Mandarin. The district’s also launching programs in Armenian and Arabic.

District officials say the classes have been championed by immigrant parents, who don’t want to see their children lose touch with their family’s language and culture and by parents who are born in this country and feel mastery of two languages will give their children and edge in an increasingly globalized economy.

“We’re seeing parts of our city where we see some of our middle class, English-only speaking parents are coming to us and asking for those programs because they recognize the need of their children to have multilingualism,” said the LAUSD’s Hilda Maldonado. 

Education experts say students who begin mastering two languages when they’re young also do better academically no matter what the language they choose to use.