The Fight Over English-Only Education Highlights the Need For School Choice

With a robust system of school choice, voters wouldn’t be forced to choose between educator autonomy and parental empowerment.

California’s voters are once again being asked to weigh-in on how the state’s students are taught. Nearly two decades ago, Proposition 227 made English the mandatory language of instruction in public schools but it allowed parents to sign a waiver to have their kids participate in bilingual programs.

Under Proposition 58, which is backed by groups such as the California Teachers Association and the California Democratic Party, that waiver requirement is removed. School districts would no longer be required to secure parental waivers for students to participate in bilingual programs but they would still need to provide English-learners with an immersion option and obtain annual feedback on these programs from community stakeholders.

Prop. 227, passed in 1998, was largely a response to the dismal outcomes of the state’s English-learners, many of whom languished for years in classes taught in Spanish without parental knowledge. Although test scores initially shot up after its passage, subsequent research suggests the policy can neither be labeled a success nor failure based on outcomes.

A five-year evaluation by the American Institute for Research and WestEd found “little to no evidence” of differences among models of instruction for English-learners and indicated “no single path to academic success among ELs.”

And while a study by Ilana Umansky of the University of Oregon found that multilingual programs help a greater number of students reach English proficiency, it also found they hit this milestone at a slower pace. Whether this is good news largely depends on the student in question. According to Umansky, “If an English-learner program prevents students from enrolling in honors classes or a full course load, then the longer you remain an English learner, the more you miss out on. But if you are in a school where English learners have access to the full range of educational opportunities, then it really doesn’t matter if it takes slightly longer to acquire English.”

Prop. 58 proponents argue that the current policy serves as a roadblock to differentiating instructional approaches. Opponents counter that parents have the right to know if their kids are placed in a class that is taught primarily in a foreign language. Ultimately though, Prop. 58 is a symptom of a more fundamental problem with California’s education system. Most families are assigned to schools based on where they live and they have little say over how their children are educated.

Because families are stuck in schools determined by their ZIP codes, they often end up in schools that are not good fits for their children. If the school system empowered parents to choose their public schools, the state wouldn’t need laws mandating schools to be English-only. Educators would have the flexibility to implement varied programs and parents could vote with their feet by choosing a school that best suits their needs. Some parents would seek out English-only instruction for their children, others would pursue bilingual programs.

Current polls suggest that there’s a good chance Californians will approve Prop. 58. If this holds true, legislators should act to ensure that districts are required to notify parents whose children are placed in non-English classes and held accountable for offering an English immersion option as mandated.

They should also recognize that there’s a better way. With a robust system of school choice, voters wouldn’t be forced to choose between educator autonomy and parental empowerment. School choice would help deliver a diverse set of education options powered by communities and local educators rather than statewide ballot initiatives.

Aaron Smith is an education policy analyst at Reason Foundation.