Bilingual Education at a Crossroads

Legislative and public support stifled by anti-immigration sentiment

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Before most of us even entered the K-12 classroom, a battle was fought and lost for bilingual education.

In elementary school, we all either watched our friends leave the classroom for English as a second language (ESL) classes or we participated in the programs ourselves. Proposition 227, passed in 1998, mandated English-only education for any student who spoke a language other than English at home.

This was a direct initiative of institutionalized racism that sends a message to children who speak Spanish at home that their native language is not important.

Proposition 227 was a failed attempt to close the proficiency gap between native and non-native speakers of English. It was also a branch of the anti-immigration boom in the 1990s, specifically targeting undocumented families. Proposition 187, which was passed in 1994 and deemed unconstitutional by a federal court in 1999, established a screening system that barred undocumented immigrants from enrolling in public education and accessing emergency health care.

At best, public education for English learners under Proposition 227 was a test preparation method focused on the short-term goal of bolstering English test scores. However, legislators never considered how English-only education would affect these students in other subjects.

It is unacceptable to expect a student to learn math, science and history in a language they just started formally learning — and to be tested with materials that are intended for students who have been exposed to English since birth. This is the reality for California’s almost 1.35 million students who are English learners.

After the 2016 election, Proposition 227 was repealed and replaced by Proposition 58, a law initiating school districts to establish dual-language immersion programs for both native and non-native English speakers while preserving the requirement that public schools ensure students become proficient in English.

At the state level, this is a concrete step toward promoting language equity in California, but 10 months after Proposition 58 passed, the federal government undermined the message of language empowerment by rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2017. An estimated 20,000 bilingual teachers nationwide were protected by DACA.

These teachers are more than just a resource for bilingual education. Many teachers return to their K-12 communities and inspire their students, some of whom share similar stories of immigration.

“My hope is that they see myself in their shoes,” said Luis Juarez, a fifth- grade teacher and DACA recipient from Dallas, Texas. “That they work to prove to their parents that they made the right decision to come to this country.”

There is now a renewed surge of support for Spanish–English bilingual education in California, yet less than 5 percent of California’s public schools had a bilingual program as of fall 2016. The root of this disparity is the lack of bilingual educators to meet the demand.

Very few teachers pursued bilingual teaching credentials during Proposition 227’s tenure. Enrollment in San Diego State University’s (SDSU) bilingual teacher preparation program dropped so low that the university almost shut down the program — in a state where one- fourth of the population speaks Spanish at home.

“There was virtually no incentive for teachers to pursue bilingual credentials,” said Cristina Alfaro, chair of the department of dual language and English learner education at SDSU. “Why would you prepare for a job that doesn’t exist?”

In an attempt to reinvigorate bilingual programs in California, aspiring teachers are being encouraged to pursue bilingual credentials, myself included. However, feeding the rising need for multilingual education purely by credentialing teachers is a surface- level solution.

The DACA rescindment has taken this country back to the anti- immigration climate of the 1990s. If the 20,000 bilingual educators protected by DACA are deported, it will significantly regress the initiatives of Proposition 58.

Bilingual programs are meant to serve both native English and native Spanish speakers equally — no matter where they were born. Bilingual education can not succeed when children, parents and teachers are living in fear of deportation. It can not succeed until immigrants are treated as valued members of society.

Mara Paley is a third-year linguistics major from Cowell College. After graduating this spring, she plans on intensively studying Spanish in South America before attending graduate school for education or speech–language pathology.