Bill Hurts Immigrant Kids

Bill to End Ban on Bilingual Education Hurts Immigrant Kids

18 September 2014


By Rosalie P. Porter

SB 1174, passed by the California Legislature and now on the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown, undermines all the gains made during the past two decades in educating children who start school without a full knowledge of the English language. The measure places a question on the November 2016 ballot that gives parents the choice to enroll their child in bilingual education.

Bilingual education is the practice of teaching non-English-speaking children in their native language while they are learning English. The idea is to teach school subjects in the child’s first language. Yet decades of research shows this well-intentioned approach is an utter failure.

An “English for the Children” referendum (Proposition 227) passed in 1998 with 60 percent of the vote. Since then, improvements have been reported in the learning of English and in academic success by this group of children, who make up almost half of California’s public school enrollment.

Before Prop. 227, English-language learners were segregated by language and ethnicity most of the school day, separated from English speakers for three to six years. State reports showed no benefit to the students from being taught in their native language. It even resulted in a protest by Mexican American parents in Los Angeles who demanded that their children be taught English much more quickly.

This proposed law makes no sense. Encouraging all California children to learn another language or to develop fully the language of their homes is a laudable goal. But this goal must not be the basis for destroying the English immersion programs now in place that give the greatest opportunity to English-language learners. These are two different issues that deserve to be addressed individually.

For English-language learners, the fastest growing population in our public schools, mastering fluency and literacy in English is the first priority. The skills of speaking, reading and writing in English open the door rapidly — in one to two years — to learning school subjects taught in English and being included fully in mainstream classrooms. It is happening now in California, Arizona and Massachusetts, where the discarding of bilingual education programs has brought positive changes documented by school districts.

Two examples make the point:

•A study published by the Lexington Institute n 2008 (“English Learner Success in California Schools”) reports that children who knew little English when they started kindergarten, but achieve English proficiency in elementary school, are some of the highest-performing students in public high schools.

•A 2006 study by the Arizona Department of Education cites the Nogales Unified School District report that 60 to 78 percent of students identified as English learners two years earlier had passed all three state tests, in reading, writing and math.

SB1174 mixes two issues, ignoring what is already allowable under law. Any district is free to design whatever program it desires, if there is parental support, to teach any language. But taking away the mandate for English immersion programs that have proved more successful for non-English-speaking children in California schools would be a disastrous move, curtailing opportunity for this population.

Gov. Brown has until Sept. 30 to veto this misguided legislation. Let’s hope he sees the folly of this attempt to weaken the role of English as our common tongue.

Rosalie P. Porter is an author and educational consultant.  She has served on the National Advisory Council on Bilingual Education.  She is chairwoman of ProEnglish. 

Read the article on the San Francisco Chronicle website.