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Latino Political Pulse: Californians Will Be Voting on Bilingual Education

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Second-graders at Fryberger Elementary School in Westminster, Calif., Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016. Nick Ut / AP

In California, voters will get to say "yes" or "no" on a ballot measure that adds a new chapter to the state's ongoing debate about bilingual education.

Proposition 58 would remove restrictions placed in 1998 that require most children inside of California's public schools to be taught only in English. Additionally, the bill would no longer require students who are learning English to be enrolled in English-only immersion classes and allow for schools to create bilingual learning programs.

The English-only mandate began roughly 18 years ago with the passage of Proposition 227, and the prospect of ending the current policy worries educators like retired Latino superintendent Ken Noonan, who has spent 40 years as an educator.

Noonan worries that a change in instruction could have a detrimental effect on children whose primary language is not English. He feels that what students need is a strong grasp of "academic English" and that if they don't have this early on, their prospects later, especially for higher education, would be limited.

Educators like Noonan think their arguments are not unfounded; five years after the introduction of Proposition 227 a study commissioned by the state found that not only had test scores throughout the state gone up, but scores between English and non-English speakers had narrowed.

Noonan also worries that a change could weigh down academic instruction. "Teachers are teaching eight to twelve subjects a week; their plate is full," he said. "Piling on one more thing is overwhelming."

While greater scores in the classroom is one measure of success, supporters of Proposition 58 see it as an opportunity to move forward with a more advanced education system.

"Overwhelmingly, people got the memo that learning English is a basic thing," said Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, Dean of the University of California's Graduate School of Education & Information. But he said that research has shown there are strong advantages to speaking more than one language.

"We understand balanced bilingual individuals, those who command two languages, much better now and the data is overwhelming." He's not alone in this belief. Studies, including one conducted by Harvard last year, show increased verbal fluency in bilindividuals as young as 10 years old that was still present in older adulthood.

State senator Ricardo Lara, one of the Prop 58 sponsors, said in a recent interview that the proposal seeks to give local school districts flexibility in how to adapt the use of bilingual education in their schools.

Appoximately one out of four students in California speak a language other than English at home.

Some Latino organizations are publicly supporting the ballot measure and encouraging community members to choose "yes."

One of these groups is The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, known as CHIRLA.

"I think California has set a good example of how this country is changing," said Diana Colin, who serves as the organization's Civic Engagement Director. The previous measure, Proposition 227, "no longer represents who we are as a state."

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