Let's Keep Teaching English to Children in Our California Public Schools

The Debate Over Bilingual Education in California

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Alice Callaghan has spent decades working with mostly Mexican and Guatemalan families out of a tiny office near Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. It doubles as a school for a few dozen 4- and 5-year-olds.

After the Pledge of Allegiance, children scamper to their seats to work on phonics exercises, blended words, vocabulary and reciting classroom rules. Not a word in Spanish is spoken, heard or written on the posters and word puzzles hanging on the walls, and many of the children’s names have been anglicized.

It has been nearly two decades since California imposed significant restrictions on bilingual education and mandated English-only instruction for the state’s 1.4 million English-language learners (ELLs). But on this year’s ballot, Proposition 58 will give voters a chance to lift those restrictions and make it easier for parents to choose.

Proponents of bilingual instruction say the change is long overdue, but opponents are convinced it will be a huge mistake.

Here in downtown Los Angeles, Callaghan — a former nun and self-described liberal — is proud to call this an English-only school.

“Almost all of our children are at the beginning level,” she says. “When they leave first grade, they’re at the advanced level.”

Callaghan and critics of bilingual instruction say it delays kids’ ability to read, write and speak proper English.

“Think about it,” she says. “Our children live in Spanish-speaking families, Spanish-speaking neighborhoods, and listen to Spanish television when they’re home. If school refuses to teach them English, where are they going to learn it? They’re not going to go to college if they don’t have academic English down well.”

This criticism was widespread in 1998, the year that 61 percent of voters passedProposition 227, which required parents to sign a waiver if they wanted to keep their children in a bilingual classroom. Without a waiver, ELLs were automatically placed in English-only classes.

• Category: English in the Schools • Tags: Notable