The debate over bilingual education in California

143854 full
143854 full

Alice Callaghan has spent decades working with mostly Mexican and Guatemalan families out of a tiny office near Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. It doubles as a school for a few dozen 4- and 5-year-olds.

After the Pledge of Allegiance, children scamper to their seats to work on phonics exercises, blended words, vocabulary and reciting classroom rules. Not a word in Spanish is spoken, heard or written on the posters and word puzzles hanging on the walls, and many of the children's names have been anglicized.

It has been nearly two decades since California imposed significant restrictions on bilingual education and mandated English-only instruction for the state's 1.4 million English-language learners (ELLs). But on this year's ballot, Proposition 58 will give voters a chance to lift those restrictions and make it easier for parents to choose.

Proponents of bilingual instruction say the change is long overdue, but opponents are convinced it will be a huge mistake.

Here in downtown Los Angeles, Callaghan — a former nun and self-described liberal — is proud to call this an English-only school.

Students at Las Familias Del Pueblo practice sentence structure and language.
Students at Las Familias Del Pueblo practice sentence structure and language. Morgan Walker for NPR

"Almost all of our children are at the beginning level," she says. "When they leave first grade, they're at the advanced level."

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

"Think about it," she says. "Our children live in Spanish-speaking families, Spanish-speaking neighborhoods, and listen to Spanish television when they're home. If 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."

This criticism was widespread in 1998, the year that 61 percent of voters passedProposition 227, which required parents to sign a waiver if they wanted to keep their children in a bilingual classroom. Without a waiver, ELLs were automatically placed in English-only classes.

Books in English and Spanish sit on the shelves at Las Familias Del Pueblo.
Books in English and Spanish sit on the shelves at Las Familias Del Pueblo. Morgan Walker for NPR

Callaghan was a key figure in that campaign against bilingual education 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.

Ricardo Lara says this is an absolute distortion. He's a state senator from the Los Angeles area and the author of Proposition 58.

"I believe the English-only approach has failed a large portion of our students," Lara says. "In California, 1 of 5 children are still not proficient in English."

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.

For example, school districts would still decide locally whether to offer bilingual education. English-only instruction would remain an option.

On this particular day, Lara is in his district visiting Aldama Elementary School in L.A., where parents like Courtney McKitten say bilingual instruction has overwhelming support.

Different Perspectives: Alice Callaghan (left) says bilingual education slows down English language acquisition; Hilda Maldonado (right), executive director of the Multilingual and Multicultural Education Department of the Los Angeles Unified School District, supports bilingual education.
Different Perspectives: Alice Callaghan (left) says bilingual education slows down English language acquisition; Hilda Maldonado (right), executive director of the Multilingual and Multicultural Education Department of the Los Angeles Unified School District, supports bilingual education. Morgan Walker for NPR

"Learning a second language — specifically Spanish because we live in L.A. — is very important," McKitten says. "But we were also motivated to go to a school that was integrated, where kids were not all like my kid."

Ron Unz is the Silicon Valley millionaire who orchestrated the statewide campaign to restrict bilingual education in 1998. He says that it's that sentiment from parents like McKitten that is really driving Proposition 58.

"It's just an effort to satisfy the lobbying of affluent Anglo parents who want their children to learn Spanish," Unz says.

He insists bilingual instruction cheats poor, Latino immigrant children — but he believes that's not going to stop Proposition 58 from passing.

"All that really will probably happen is a small number of immigrant students will sort of get less English than they should get," he says.

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.

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