California Bill Would Overhaul English-Only Instruction

In a victory for Latino legislators, California lawmakers are overhauling a 1998 law requiring English-only instruction in public schools.

The proposed ballot will reach voters in two years, asking to expand the law to include multilingual education programs.  Supporters of the 1998 law believe that the use of the Spanish language in the classroom will delay learning for English as a second language students.

“I think Californians’ attitudes have changed and they understand the need, now that we are in a global economy, to have a multilingual workforce,” said Senator Ricardo Lara, sponsor of SB 1174. “I think the time has come for us to revisit multilingualism, bilingualism and language immersion programs.”

The legislation is being opposed by Senate Republican leader Bob Huff, who is referring to the bill as “an end run around the vote of the people.”  Huff claims the language used in the bill will allow legislators to make changes to the law with a simple majority vote.

The bill is headed to Governor Jerry Brown.  If approved, parents will be involved in the decision as to which language should be used to teach their children.  All students will still have ample access to English instruction.

Last week, a 1994 initiative, Proposition 187, was removed from state law.  The proposition placed a ban on offering state services to illegal immigrants.  While the measure had been previously ruled unconstitutional, it had never been removed from the books.

At the same time as the proposed overhaul of the 1998 law, another proposal passed, SB 1210, which would offer student loan programs for illegal immigrants, allowing them to attend a University of California or Cal State campus.

It is estimated that SB 1210 will help 1,800 students gain a college education.  According to California law, illegal immigrants are allowed to pay state resident tuition rates and eligible for state financial aid.  The students cannot however, apply for federal aid.  The new proposal hopes to close that gap.

In another win for English language learners last week, a Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge ruled that California education officials are violating the constitutional rights of ESL students by not giving them enough specialized instruction in public schools.

“I’m ordering you to do something, anything,” James Chalfant told lawyers representing the California Department of Education and other state officials during a one-hour hearing in the Stanley Mosk courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. “All must receive instructional services until reclassified.”

Almost 1.5 million students benefit from the state’s English learner program.  Once a student is found to understand English well enough to benefit from standard instruction they are reclassified.

Last year the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California filed a lawsuit claiming that 20,000 English language learners from 251 school districts in the state were not receiving the instruction they needed to succeed.  Just last month the US Department of Justice filed a statement saying they sided with the ACLU.

“We’re thrilled,” Mark Rosenbaum, lead counsel for the ACLU, said after the hearing. “The court has said that all English learners are entitled to the same dignity, the same rights to learn, the same opportunity to learn as all children.”