A kindergarten student at Oak Ridge Elementary School in the Sacramento Unified School District completes a writing assignment to hone her language skills. (Gabriel Salcedo/KQED)
California has made a huge about-face when it comes to bilingual education in public schools, approving Proposition 58. The significance of this initiative underscores the changing demographics and cultural shifts in the Golden State.
"I'm really elated right now, as a teacher and as a Californian," said Anne Zerrien-Lee, who teaches first grade at Aldama Elementary, a Spanish-English dual-language school in Highland Park in Los Angeles. "I think this shows that people are realizing the great benefit to our students of learning in two languages."
Eighteen years ago, voters approved Proposition 227, the English in Public Schools initiative, which required schools to teach all students in “English only” unless parents obtained a waiver for their child.
Proposition 58 will repeal key provisions of Proposition 227, thereby eliminating the English-only mandate.
Instead, school districts could adopt an approach they see fit to teach English learners, as long as they get community input and ensure that all students master the English language. Teacher Zerrien-Lee says it will make it easier for more schools to establish dual-language programs like the one where she teaches, in which all students are taught in both English and another language.
"Most families in California have not been able to access that," said Zerrien-Lee. "They didn't know they had the right to bilingual education for their kids, and they didn't know how to go about getting it. And most school districts did not really advertise it or let parents know they had the right."
Many education experts, as well as influential Latino state lawmakers, say helping young people in California master more than one language today is extremely valuable to succeed in a global economy.
The initiative’s most vocal opponent, Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz, who led the 1998 campaign to dismantle bilingual education, continued to argue this year that bilingual education simply does not effectively teach students the English language.
Proposition 55 also emerged victorious late Tuesday night. Of the three education-related ballot measures this year, this measure could arguably have the biggest impact on students in the classroom.
The measure requires the wealthiest of Californians to continue paying higher taxes for another 12 years to fund schools and health care programs for low-income families. It’s considered an extension of Proposition 30, approved in 2012, which raised both sales and income taxes.
"I'm very excited because it confirms that California voters and Californians believe in their public schools and are willing to stand up for our students," said Eric Heins, president of the California Teachers Association.
Education groups across California, including the state’s two most powerful teachers unions, have been pushing hard for the extension, staging rallies up and down the state.
They say the tax extension is desperately needed to protect future spending for schools. For the first time in nearly a decade, schools are actually hiring more teachers and staff, as well as adopting more academic programs to meet the specific needs of their students.
"What this money allows us to do is to continue all those exciting changes and restore programs like career and technical education, music and art and keep class sizes at least down to a reasonable level," said Heins. "It doesn't fix everything. I mean, it's certainly not the panacea, but it brings a kind of stability so we can continue to make the kinds of changes that are actually good for our students, so we can focus on the whole child. As a teacher it makes me very excited."
Without Proposition 55, districts could have once again faced the volatility of the state’s boom-and-bust budget cycles, possibly resulting in big education spending cuts. That would likely derail many initiatives districts have implemented in order to satisfy California’s new academic standards.
The measure also helps fund community colleges. Fifteen-year-old Zhihao Gao, who attends Oakland Technical High School, was part of a group that called voters to urge them to vote yes on the measure. "The main reason why I support Prop 55 is that it is in a way supporting my education, as a young person of color," Gao said. "Both of my parents never attended college, but I will, and that will definitely change my life in a way that has never been done in my family."
Californians also approved Proposition 51. The measure will advance construction and modernization projects for K-12 schools and community colleges.
One of the big sticking points with this initiative has been whether its approach to funding school facility projects makes prudent fiscal sense.
Proposition 51 allows for the sale of $9 billion in general obligation bonds. However, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office says if the $9 billion in bonds were sold at an average interest rate of 5 percent, the total cost to pay off the bonds would be $17.6 billion -- $9 billion in principal plus $8.6 billion in interest.