SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — California voters are considering repealing a law banning most bilingual education, an idea state residents overwhelmingly endorsed almost 20 years ago.
English immersion was a hot-button topic when voters approved Proposition 227 in 1998, with supporters saying it would help non-speakers assimilate by forcing them to learn the language. Critics claimed it unfairly targeted the state's growing immigrant population.
This year's Proposition 58 has barely caused a ripple and is expected to pass, a reflection of California's transition to a state where Hispanics now outnumber whites and amid growing support for bilingual education in many places, including politically conservative Utah.
It's not just immigrant parents who want their children taught bilingually. Increasingly, English-speaking American parents want their children to learn Spanish, Mandarin and other languages to better compete in a global marketplace.
"Kids who speak multiple languages, they are more employable, and do better than their monolingual counterparts," said state Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens. "The schools that have these programs tend to be in very influential parts of the state — what we want to ensure is every kid across the state, regardless of their zip code, will have access to these programs."
He wrote the legislation calling for the repeal of much of Proposition 227, which requires voter approval because it revises an earlier ballot measure.
It goes before voters in a presidential election year when Republican Donald Trump has called for tougher immigration policies that incensed many Latino voters. Neither side in the Proposition 58 debate focuses on Trump in their campaigns on the measure, which has support from the state Democratic Party, California Teachers Association and California Chamber of Commerce board. Opponents include the state Republican Party and businessman Ron Unz, who sponsored the 1998 initiative.
Since Proposition 227 passed, Massachusetts and Arizona also adopted laws promoting English immersion, but many have moved in the opposite direction. Bilingual education is used widely in Texas for English learners and there has been rising interest in programs that mix English learners and English speakers in the classroom and split instruction between English and another language to encourage mastery of both.
California — which has about 1.4 million English learners, most of whom speak Spanish — has also seen growth in these so-called dual language immersion programs; the state now has at least 350 schools with such programs. It is among more than 20 states offering a seal of "biliteracy" to high school graduates who master more than one language. Indiana last year passed such a law, signed by Trump's running mate, Gov. Mike Pence.
But to get a school to offer bilingual education parents need to amass enough students to get a class started and each year parents of English learners must sign waivers to participate.
Proposition 58 would no longer require schools to teach English learners in just English, and parents would not need waivers for instruction in a different language. Rather schools would have to provide programs for English learners once requested by a minimum number of parents where possible.
Unz argues that English learners grasp the language quicker through immersion. While he doesn't see California returning to days when immigrants' children were taught in Spanish and struggled to move into mainstream classrooms, he said he wants to ensure immigrant parents have a choice and worries these new programs are focused more on affluent American parents trying to raise polyglots than their English-learner peers.
"If the parents really wanted these programs, they could sign the waiver," Unz said.
Proponents say dual language immersion students perform better academically in the long run in not one, but two languages. Educators say that's because English learners continue to advance in other critical subjects while improving their English.
Martha Gomez, director of language services and student programs in Jurupa Valley Unified School District in Riverside County, said her district started dual language immersion a decade ago and now has some eighth-graders taking AP Spanish for college credit.
"Now, the goal is to obtain true bilingualism and biliteracy," she said, adding that programs during the 1990s were less structured and aimed at transitioning from Spanish to English, not becoming bilingual.
Eliminating the waiver requirement will make easier for those who want this type of education, she said, since parents must come into school and request and sign a waiver every year, which is difficult for those who work or don't drive.
Bilingual education supporters said some schools also have been reluctant to start programs over fear of lawsuits under Proposition 227.
But Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, said she's worried because Proposition 58 lets lawmakers make future changes to bilingual education without returning to voters. She believes the current system has proven effective.
"When you look at the success of people going into business, and the success of employers, and the success of educators," she said. "After we've had all this success, why mess with it if this is not broken?"