Proposition 58: California To Vote On Bilingual Education Ban : NPR Ed Proposition 58 would lift the current restrictions on teaching core subjects in a language other than English.

After Nearly 2 Decades, Californians Revisit Ban On Bilingual Education

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Bilingual education in California's public schools is restricted thanks to a measure that voters passed nearly 20 years ago. This November 8, California voters will be asked to roll back those restrictions. Proposition 58 would end the mandate for English-only instruction and allow schools to teach students in their native language as well as English. NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Near Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, Alice Callaghan has spent decades working with mostly Mexican and Guatemalan families out of a tiny office that doubles as a school for a few dozen 4 and 5-year-olds.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic...

SANCHEZ: After the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, children scamper to their seats to work on phonics exercises, blended words, vocabulary and reciting classroom rules.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: If you make a mess, then clean it.

SANCHEZ: Not a word in Spanish is spoken or heard or written on the posters and word puzzles plastered on the walls. Many of these children's names have been anglicized. Callaghan, a former nun and self-described liberal, is proud to call this an English-only school.

ALICE CALLAGHAN: Almost all of our children are at the beginning level. When our children leave first grade, they're at the advanced level.

SANCHEZ: Callaghan and critics of bilingual instruction say it delays kids' ability to read, write and speak proper English.

CALLAGHAN: Think about it. Our children live in Spanish-speaking families, Spanish-speaking neighborhoods. They listen to Spanish-speaking television when they're home. If the school refuses to teach them English, where are they going to learn it? They're not going to go to college if they don't have academic English down well.

SANCHEZ: Well this criticism was widespread in 1998, the year that 61 percent of California voters passed Proposition 227. Callaghan was a key figure in that campaign against bilingual education and helped parents organize a boycott in 1996.

Now she worries that if Proposition 58 passes, schools in California will return to Spanish as the language of instruction for children who desperately need to master English first. That is an absolute distortion, says Ricardo Lara, a state senator from the Los Angeles area and author of Proposition 58.

RICARDO LARA: I believe that the English-only approach has failed a large portion of our students. In California, 1 out of 5 children are still not proficient in English.

SANCHEZ: And you can't blame bilingual education for that, says Lara, because so few schools have it. Besides, he says Proposition 58 is not about ramming bilingual education down people's throats. School districts, for example, would still decide locally whether to offer bilingual education or not.

But parents who want it would not have to jump through all kinds of bureaucratic hoops like they do now to get it. English-only instruction would remain an option. On this particular day, Lara's in his district visiting Aldama Elementary, where parents like Courtney McKitten say bilingual instruction has overwhelming support.

COURTNEY MCKITTEN: Learning the second language and, specifically, Spanish, because we live in LA, was very important. But we also were very motivated to go to a school that was integrated, where kids were not all just like my kid.

SANCHEZ: And that, says Ron Unz, is really what's driving Proposition 58.

RON UNZ: It's just an effort to satisfy the lobbying of all these affluent Anglo parents that want their children to learn Spanish.

SANCHEZ: Unz is the Silicon Valley millionaire who orchestrated the statewide campaign to restrict bilingual education in 1998. He insists bilingual instruction cheats poor, Latino immigrant children. But that's not going to stop Proposition 58 from passing.

UNZ: All that really will probably happen is a relatively small number of immigrant students will sort of get less English than they should get.

SANCHEZ: Still, Unz says he just can't imagine large numbers of immigrant parents flocking to bilingual programs based on what he calls the flawed notion that you have to build on children's home language in order to help them master English. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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