U.S. Ambassador to United Nations Power sits next to schoolchildren during her visit to the Hand in Hand, Center for Jewish-Arab Bilingual Education in Israel, in Jerusalem

U.S. Ambassador to United Nations Samantha Power (C) sits next to schoolchildren during her visit to the Hand in Hand, Center for Jewish-Arab Bilingual Education in Israel, in Jerusalem February 15, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Reuters

To understand Proposition 58, which appears on the November ballot, you have to look back at Proposition 227, which voters approved in 1998.

We use a short-hand reference to describe the earlier ballot initiative as “banning” bilingual education in California schools. But it was much more complicated than that, as were Prop. 227’s proponents and opponents.

Prop. 227 came amid a wave of anti-immigrant/anti-minority sentiment. In 1994, California voters passed Prop. 187, which sought to deny most government services, including health and education services, to people, including children, in this country illegally. The courts later ruled Prop. 187 to be unconstitutional. In 1996, voters passed Prop. 209, which banned use of affirmative action programs to enhance diversity in such institutions as California public universities. In 1998, voters passed Prop. 227 to limit bilingual education programs in California schools.

One might assume Prop. 227 was an outgrowth of intolerance. But actually many supporters included Latino parents who were frustrated by their English-learner students languishing for years in bilingual classes and failing to acquire the language proficiency needed to prepare for good-paying, professional jobs. English-learners are students who are unable to communicate fluently or learn effectively in English.

Among those promoting Prop. 227 was its honorary chairman, Jaime Escalante, the late East Los Angeles high school teacher who received national fame in the movie “Stand and Deliver” about his inspirational work with inner-city students.

Like others involved in the campaign, including Silicon Valley software entrepreneur Ron Unz, Escalante emphasized that unless schools teach children to read and write English, they would be trapped in low-income jobs.

Pushing to preserve the existing bilingual education system were those who taught classes in foreign languages, primarily Spanish, teachers unions, other parents and community activists.

The proposition, which 60 percent of the voters approved in 1998, did not eliminate bilingual education. Rather, it required a one-year intensive English program, with the ability of parents to request extensions. Districts also were given flexibility to develop alternative language-learning programs, which many have. Within 10 years of Prop. 227’s enactment, the number of English learners in bilingual classes dropped from 30 percent to 5 percent.

Unlike most initiatives on the November ballot that result from a citizens’ effort and the collection of voters’ signatures on petitions, Prop. 58 was placed on the ballot by an act of the Legislature. It is supported by many of the same groups, particularly in the education field, who opposed Prop. 227 nearly two decades ago.

Proponents’ reasoning is that eliminating the earlier bilingual education program has denied California students the resources to develop valuable multi-language skills and to maintain cultural appreciation. They also point to studies, which have had mixed findings, at best, to contend English-learners make better educational progress in bilingual classes.

But a sobering opposing opinion to this reasoning comes from Ken Noonan, the founder of the California Association of Bilingual Educators and the former superintendent of the Oceanside Unified School District. Noonan strongly opposed Prop. 227 in 1998. But when it passed, he strictly enforced its rules and switched to English-only programs.

Today, Noonan is a believer. He said he witnessed major improvements in learning in his district. And statewide, test scores of more than a million immigrant students significantly increased, as did the number of Latino students advancing to university studies.

Noonan recently told The Sacramento Bee that he is appalled that politicians could risk that progress by returning English-learners to “unnecessary” bilingual programs.

In addition to returning to the prior bilingual education system, Prop. 58 will give legislators the ability to make further changes, without consulting voters.

“It’s our job to provide the language and the culture of the nation, which is English,” Noonan said. “Why screw up a good thing? This is working. This is working so well.”

We agree. Californians should vote no on Prop. 58.