Having to ask parents to sign a consent form should not be considered a burden — and yet activists have put Proposition 58 on the November ballot so that they can relieve themselves of that pedestrian challenge. In 1998, 61 percent of Californians passed Proposition 227, which replaced bilingual education with English immersion classes. Prop. 227 allows parents to opt their children out of immersion classes, if they sign a form. “We have to get waivers from every family every spring,” San Francisco school board member Emily Murase told The Chronicle editorial board. She talked as if asking parents to sign a consent form is daunting. The waivers are “barriers” which produce a “chilling effect,” said state Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens (Los Angeles County). Prop. 58 would remove this mandate.
Lara himself was in English immersion and “happened to excel,” but some of his siblings fared better in bilingual classes, he said. Prop. 227 allowed parents to opt their children out of immersion classes if they could find bilingual classes.
Meanwhile, it’s important to remember the reason voters approved Prop. 227. Before 1998, countless English learners were parked in a multiyear bilingual system that failed to teach them English and, hence, failed them in other subjects as well. There were horror stories about English-speaking students wasting away in bilingual courses because of their Spanish surnames; of students who spent years in public schools without learning the basics. Parents who tried to steer their children into English immersion classes often got nowhere because school administrators were convinced they had to teach students in their native language first. As one activist in the Latino community told me in 1997 that the problem with bilingual education is that it is “misnamed. It should have been named Spanish.”
English immersion placed limited-English students in classes where they could absorb a new language quickly. Gone was the notion that it would take five, even 10, years to move English learners into regular classes. Within five years of Prop. 227’s passage, the number of limited-English students who could speak English proficiently tripled. Math scores for English immersion students rose. The measure brought about the rare educational reform that demonstrably improved student learning.