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What does bilingual education mean for California?

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30th-Jul-2017       
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Joanna Hughes :
While the presidential race garnered the majority of attention in last month's US elections, there were plenty of other noteworthy results. In the educational sphere, California made history by lifting an 18-year-long restriction on bilingual education, with Proposition 58 passing by a significant 73-27 margin. Let's take a closer look at the vote, along with what it means for the future of multilingual learning in California.
 About Senate Bill 1174
Dubbed the Non-English Languages Allowed in Public Education Act (Senate Bill 1174) and referred to as Proposition 58, the ballot tasked California voters with deciding whether to repeal or let stand 1998's Proposition 227, the "English in Public Schools" Initiative, which virtually eliminated bilingualism from state schools by relegating "Limited English Proficient" (LEP) students to special classes while simultaneously eliminating the majority of these classes. Per Proposition 227's  requirements, LEP students took one year of intensive English before switching to English-only classes. Parental waivers were also required for students to participate in non-English-only coursework.
Having voted a resounding "yes" to Proposition 58 in November, California will no longer mandate English-only education in its classrooms. Students will not only regain access to bilingual educational programming, but also the opportunity to learn from teachers who speak their own native languages as well as English. Parental waivers will no longer be required, and school districts and government officials will be required to solicit annual feedback from parents and the community on language education programs.
While Proposition 58 is cause for celebration for the many advocates of bilingualism in schools, the path to change is complicated. According to a report from NPR, state and school officials will face questions related to how schools will transition to offering bilingual instruction, how much that will cost, and where to find bilingual teachers.
We can, however, expect the following three things:
1.    English proficiency will still be required.
California is home to the US's highest proportion of students who speak a non-English language at home. While Prop 58 will permit dual-language programs in order to support these students, it will also maintain an English proficiency requirement.
This now narrows the field down to just three US states with laws restricting bilingual education programs: Arizona, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. Others, meanwhile, have launched aggressive initiatives aimed at promoting dual-language educational programming in public schools. And with good reason: a growing body of research indicates that a well-executed bilingual education stimulates the brain's learning center across everything from dealing with ambiguities to problem-solving. Some scientists even suggest that a multilingual brain is more resistant to dementia, including Alzheimer's disease.
2.    Dual language programming will grow.
While county and state administrators may still be wrestling with the specifics, experts agree that California can expect to see a significant spike in students taking advantage of bilingual programming. According to Governing.com, Prop 58 will immediately impact approximately 1.4 million English learners-or 22 percent of the state's public school population-in currently enrolled in California's public schools.
But access won't be limited to non-English speakers. Dual-language classes are increasingly popular with English-speaking students, for whom enrollment in bilingual immersion program is also expected to grow.
And while the specifics of what bilingual programming is offered will be decided at the local level, that decision ultimately rests in the hands of parents, not administrators. If even a small proportion of parents express a demand for bilingual instruction, schools may be forced to comply. And just as local districts will offer or not offer programming based on this demand, so will the cost of new programming remain at the local level.
3.    Language teachers will be in great demand.
Many parents are eager for bilingual programming but now that it's a reality, will there be enough teachers to support demand when the law goes into effect on July 1, 2017?
Already, the state of California is managing a deficit of teachers with the skills to instruct in multiple languages, according to National Association for Bilingual Education Executive Director Santiago Wood as reported by EdSource. EdSource also reveals that the number of teachers receiving credentials to teach in California's bilingual or dual immersion programs has been on a steady decline for the past six consecutive years.
A large part of the issue? Recovering from Prop 227, during which bilingual education in the state was essentially forbidden. In order to successfully navigate what's ahead, insiders say, California will need to incentivize teachers to invest in preparing themselves for working in bilingual programs.
In the meanwhile, school districts are employing diverse tactics to find more teachers, including conducting national searchers, increasing training opportunities for teaching assistants who may have the abilities but lack the credentials, and even recruiting overseas through the Exchange Visitor Program for Teachers.
Although the path to implementing Prop 58 is indeed fraught with challenges, the vast majority of educational experts agree that it's a worthwhile endeavor.  In addition to better meeting the immediate needs of California's non-English speaking students, research increasingly shows that learning more than one languages comes with tangible, lasting social and cognitive benefits for all.

(Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family).

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