This November, California voters will decide on Proposition 58, a measure that would allow public schools to teach students in both English and the student's primary language. If passed, Prop 58 would override Proposition 227, a 1998 ballot initiative that restricted multilingual education in the state.
According to data compiled from the US Department of Education, students learning English as second language make up 22.7 percent of students in Los Angeles County and 22.3 percent statewide. These students are currently required to enroll in "English-only" immersion programs meant to accelerate learning the language.
Proponents of Prop 58 argue that schools should have the flexibility to teach students in whatever way they see fit.
"Under our current system, too many California students are being left behind," says Yes on 58 campaign spokesperson Inez Kaminski. "They're not given the opportunity to learn English with the most effective teaching methods possible, which includes multilingual education."
"It speaks to the values of communities in California rather than a state mandated set of values," says Kaminski.
Critics say the proposition would instead encourage schools to impose Spanish-speaking classes against the will of parents and hinder students' ability to learn English.
"What the bilingual activists are trying to do is shift the state back to the Spanish-almost-only system for young Latino children that the state was using 20 years ago," says former businessman and political commentator Ron Unz, who is one of the proposition's primary opponents. "It would be a disaster if they end up [passing the proposition], but I'm very skeptical that they'll be able to succeed."
Unz drafted Proposition 227, which introduced the restrictions on multilingual education 18 years ago. The initiative was controversial at the time but passed with over 60 percent of the popular vote. Unz says that even if Proposition 58 passes in November, many Hispanic communities will reject multilingual programs because they keep students from learning English.
Supporters of the proposition point to a number of academic studies that support the idea that multilingual education helps English learners in the classroom.
"The target of bilingual education, in the sense of being one of the most effective ways of reaching academic English… has been documented for the last 30 years," says University of California, Los Angeles Education Professor Reynaldo Macias.
Macias says research shows multilingual programs help students learn by focusing on their broader academic achievement rather than a narrower focus on conversational speech taught in English immersion programs.
A recent online poll conducted by the University of California, Berkeley found that 69 percent of California voters support Prop 58. It has also received broad support from California school districts, teachers unions and prominent California Democrats.
If approved by voters, the measure would go into effect on Jul. 1st, 2017.