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December 2016

California votes down bilingual teaching ban

Tom Prete California

What does bilingual education have in common with marijuana, condoms, the death penalty and gun control? In the US state of California, those were some of the topics raised by seventeen different referendums on 8 November, the day of the general election, Kelly Franklin writes.

California is one of 26 states that conduct state-wide ballots on legislative initiatives, both those originating within the elected legislative bodies and those coming directly from citizen-generated petitions.

The ‘Non-English Languages Allowed in Public Education Act’ proposition, initiated through a Bill in the state legislature, was approved by 72 per cent of Californian voters in the recent poll. This proposition, number 58, overturned a 1998 proposition that basically forced school districts to use ‘English-only’ methods to teach English to non-native speakers in state-run primary and secondary schools.

The 1998 Act removed bilingual education from the options available to educators across the state to assist the rapidly growing immigrant population in California. It allowed English-only ESL classes for a maximum of just one year before mainstreaming. Proponents of the ban opposed bilingual education for various philosophical reasons, arguing that it was much costlier and that, with bilingual education, students were able to receive high school diplomas without ever showing mastery of English.

The passing of Proposition 58 returns decision-making processes to local school districts, while also allowing parents to request the type of language acquisition programme they feel is best for their child. Previously restricted dual-language programmes, whether meant to develop newcomers’ English or native speakers’ acquisition of new languages, can be added by any school district so choosing.

Schools will now be required to seek parent and community input regarding best methodology and practice, and must provide the option of teaching through English-only environments if non-English-speaking students request that instead of bilingual instruction.

The proposition was favoured by the Democratic Party and others, including the California teachers’ unions, which has been calling for local and teacher-driven control of classroom methodology. The Republican Party and other conservatives opposed the change, arguing against the higher costs of providing bilingual education as well as other programmes necessary if parents demand alternative processes.

In reality, other than removing the one-year restriction on language instruction for non-native speakers, the measure simply allows schools to be open about their current practice. Wording of the previous measure, proposition 227, demanded that teaching be ‘overwhelmingly in English’. Some schools interpreted that quite loosely, ensuring only that English was used at some level above 50 per cent of total time within bilingual classes.

Proposition 58 and other measures including limited ammunition control and legalised marijuana usage were among eleven propositions approved, while a ban on plastic bags used by many stores and a requirement that condom usage be mandatory in all pornographic films were voted down. 

Pic courtesy: Tom Prete

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