Proposition 227: 10 years later
North County Times
Nov 8, 2008


EDUCATION: Proposition 227: 10 years later
Ten years after California voters approved sweeping changes in the way schools teach English to immigrant children under Proposition 227, some educators say the law has not worked and needs to be changed.
But supporters say the law has improved student test scores and should stay in place.
Prop. 227, sponsored by Silicon Valley software entrepreneur Ron Unz in 1998, all but ended bilingual education in the state. The law requires that non-English speaking students be placed in special one-year classes where instruction must be overwhelmingly in English, except with a written request from parents.
"It's not working," said Grace McField, assistant professor of multilingual and multicultural education at Cal State San Marcos. "We've had it for 10 years and we can confidently say that it's not working. So, yes, we need to reverse it and change it."
McField helped organize a two-day conference on Prop. 227 that began Friday at the San Diego County Office of Education building in San Marcos. It was aimed at examining the measure's effects on education in the last 10 years.
Unz, who is chairman of English for Children, an organization promoting Prop. 227 and other similar efforts to eliminate bilingual education programs, said the measure has been a success.
"The whole (bilingual education) program was crazy and once it disappeared, everybody was happy about it," Unz said.
He cited state standardized test scores, from 1998 to 2002, that he said improved for English-learners after Prop. 227 passed. Scores in reading and language remained about the same for students taught in bilingual classes, while scores doubled for those English-learners taught in the one-language classes.
"If you double the test scores, that's pretty good," said Unz, a conservative who was a vocal opponent of Proposition 187, which would have eliminated most public benefits for illegal immigrants.
Opponents of Prop. 227 say those test scores are misleading.
Standardized test scores are a poor way to judge whether a teaching method works, says Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus at the University of Southern California who specializes in bilingual education.
Krashen, who spoke at the conference, said a better way is to look at groups of children with similar language proficiency and background, with one group receiving bilingual education and the other with "English-only" instruction.
"The research is very positive," Krashen said.
That kind of research has concluded that students in bilingual education programs generally acquire more English than children in all-English programs, Krashen said.
Bilingual educators say their objective is to teach children English as quickly as possible, but using methods that have proven effective through research. They say the English-immersion program imposed on them by Prop. 227 is based on ideology, not science.
How to teach immigrant children has been a point of controversy in California for decades ---- from the Americanization of schools for Mexican-American children in the early part of the 20th century to the passage of the 1968 Bilingual Education Act, a federal law requiring schools to offer bilingual education.
In 1998, Prop. 227 passed in California with the approval of 61 percent of the voters.
Since then, several other states have attempted to follow California's lead with mixed results. Voters in Arizona approved an English immersion education law in 2000 and Massachusetts approved one in 2002.
However, an initiative to eliminate bilingual education in Colorado failed in 2006, and Oregonians voted last week to oppose Measure 68, an English immersion initiative.
At the conference, the crowd of about 180 attendees let out a cheer when a speaker announced that the Oregon initiative had been rejected.
And while many of those who attended agreed the California law needed to be changed, there appeared to be little agreement on how to do it.
In California, voters would have to approve another measure to repeal or reform Prop. 227.
"What we need to do is change the legislation to meet the educational needs of children; 227 will not do that," said John Halcon, a professor of education at Cal State San Marcos, who attended the conference.
For Unz, the argument is over. Children must be taught in English, he said.
"If you don't teach them English, they are going to have a hard time," Unz said.
Contact staff writer Edward Sifuentes at (760) 740-3511 or