English Is the International Language of Success — Except in California

Too often, ‘bilingual’ education means that non-native speakers never learn the basics of English.

It’s been two decades, but I still remember the excitement of helping to pass California’s Proposition 227, which I thought would rescue Spanish-speaking kids from an education ghetto of frustration and failure. It was an uphill battle. We fought an education bureaucracy including California’s powerful teachers’ unions, book publishers who received lucrative government contracts, and even Jerry Perenchio, the late Republican billionaire CEO of Univision, who donated $1.5 million to the efforts to maintain California’s “bilingual” education system.

We won. Sixty-one percent of Californians were ready for a change. Amid chants of racism and cultural insensitivity, Latino parents would tell me they knew that education and learning English in their adopted country were key to their kids’ futures. Unfortunately, the victory wouldn’t last.

The 1998 ballot proposition meant to ensure that non-native speakers would be quickly taught English when they entered school. Back then, such speakers, primarily from Mexico and Central America, were often placed on a “bilingual track.” In essence, they were segregated from English-speaking children and taught in Spanish during the elementary and middle-school years. The “bilingual” moniker was a misnomer. Very few of these children were mainstreamed into English classes, because they never had a chance to acquire enough academic fluency to “graduate.” High schools did not have formal “bilingual” programs, which set up the bilingual-tracked kids for struggle or failure.

In 2016, California pretty much gutted Prop. 227 by appealing to the ideal of an international education. The legislature successfully placed on the ballot and passed Prop. 58, which undid the law requiring parents to sign a waiver if they wished their child to opt out of English as the primary default language. By allowing school districts to present parents with native-speaking options, Prop. 58 wiped out much of Prop. 227. Immigrant parents tend to assume that districts have a child’s best interest at heart.

More than two decades after the passage of Prop. 227, I revisited several volunteers who fought for it, mostly teachers who went against the education orthodoxy of the time. They saw the failures of the Spanish-tracked children and were not willing to sit idly by, even though it would have been easier politically.

Alice Callahan — a one-of-a-kind powerhouse and a homeless and low-income advocate who runs Las Familias del Pueblo, a joyful respite for children of working low-income immigrants in downtown Los Angeles’s Skid Row — tells me that many of her kids are now from Guatemala rather than Mexico and speak indigenous languages. Yet they are often still placed in classes where the primary language is Spanish.

When I spoke with Gloria Matta Tuchman, a now-retired bilingual teacher in Santa Ana, Calif., I felt I was giving her PTSD from the Prop. 227 campaign. Gloria spent years fighting to teach English to her largely immigrant Spanish-speaking students. When I asked about the current state of affairs, her answer was pointed: “We are back where we started from!” She said the subsequent legislation was sold as “a California education for a global economy,” adding:

These kids can’t be bilingual unless they learn English. We proved kids can learn. They are not stupid. Dropout rates went down after Prop. 227. Prop. 58 did away with the waiver. It was a money proposition. Everyone is making money off this program.

In 1998, a small percentage of California’s classroom’s used “dual immersion,” in which Spanish (or another foreign language) and English speakers join together to learn fluency in two languages. Prop. 227 never abolished these programs, which are voluntary. It appears that dual-immersion classes, at least in name, have surged in the wake of 2016’s new law.

Dual-immersion programs cost more to implement because teachers need to be fully credentialed in both Spanish and English. “It is not expensive to provide a dual-immersion program in San Diego. It’s feasible. That might not be so in Alaska,” or certain parts of California, Bakersfield teacher Ricardo Munro told me. Munro is a huge proponent of teaching proper English in order to provide the best chance to succeed in this country. An advocate of learning two languages (he taught Spanish to his children at home, and his daughter is a dual-immersion teacher), Ricardo was one of the many teachers who vocally supported Prop. 227 against the teachers’-union orthodoxy. It was not a comfortable stance to take, and he certainly had to navigate the politics inside academia. Yet he is still optimistic.

According to the California Department of Education, during the 2018–19 calendar year, about 20 percent of California’s school children were English learners, with approximately 80 percent of those speaking Spanish at home, though that number appears to be fluid. The implementation of academic English is piecemeal throughout the state. Test scores cannot be tracked accurately because California’s testing methods for English learners change frequently, making year-to-year comparisons meaningless.

In a recent article to members of the influential United Teachers Los Angles union, Cheryl Ortega — the UTLA director of bilingual education — wrote, “Our platform affirms the benefits of learning in one’s own language,” and she also called for “increased investment in multilingual education.” Few would deny the benefits of knowing multiple languages, but Los Angeles has not yet mastered teaching English learners the basics.

Although efforts to undo Prop. 227 have been largely successful, the momentum toward English has not slowed to a stop. It’s imperative for parents, often those with the least power, to advocate for their children. Those with the most to gain from learning the language of their adopted country continue to live by the whims of California’s flawed system.


The Latest