Written in 2006, this paper outlines some of the key issues in the bilingual education debate

Liz Murray



Reaction Paper #2

Proposition 227: Two years later

Jill Kerper Mora, Ed. D.

San Diego State University


            Jill Kerper Mora raises many crucial issues here that resonate far beyond their ties to Proposition 227. Mora points out that “one must question the credentials of the general public in deciding how best to educate language minority children, especially when the electorate is predominantly White.” She mentions that the point of view of educators was drowned out in the primary election campaign leading up to approval of Proposition 227. Mora also raises the issue of sound public policy to guide education of language minority students. “What does society hope to accomplish through language restriction as an official language policy?” At the heart of the matter, Mora says, are the core principles of democracy in a culturally and linguistically diverse society.

            Mora states that before Proposition 227 it was unprecedented to put an issue of educational program design or methodology to a vote of the general electorate. She reasons that the sponsors of Prop 227 capitalized on public fears and prejudices against language minorities and immigrants and convinced the public that bilingual educators have only demonic and selfish motives for advocating for native-language instruction. The coverage of the campaign focused almost solely on the negative aspects of bilingual education[1]. Unz, the major sponsor behind the bill, did not hide the fact that he had never visited a bilingual classroom. Arguments in Favor of Proposition 227[2] talk about “common sense about learning English”. Nowhere do they refer to SLA research or findings, instead they rely on the idea that we all know what is really best and that bleeding heart liberals are in fact damaging the children they are aiming to help. Teachers were placed in a position of having to defend their professional standing and experience in the face of vehement criticism and accusations of only being in it for the money. Proposition 227 harks back to the restrictive period (as detailed by Baker) in which languages other than English were seen as contrary to nation building and unity. Mora asks the question, “Is the use of other languages really a threat to our national unity, or are not intolerance and coercion a far greater threat to our unity?” The fact that a state as large as California voted such a bill into law, and did so under the guise of giving minorities a “fair go”, shows how far political animals will go to gain collateral at the expense of the people they are feigning to protect.

            As educators it is essential that we understand the rhetoric of the opposing camp in order to fight for what we know works best. Proposition 227 set out to dismantle bilingual education in the state of California. Nowhere in the discussion did politicians talk about the differing models, what makes up a successful model and what can be done to fix the failing programs. It appears that there were many unsuccessful programs in California but there were also many successful ones. Also, the dismantling of the bilingual education system in California is not simply an issue of linguistic needs. By refusing to provide for speakers of languages other than English, the message sent out is that the minority group’s culture is not valued either. This will almost certainly lead to minority students being disempowered educationally in much the same way their communities are disempowered by interactions with societal institutions (ref. Cummins1989).

Language is in many ways the most salient expression of culture. It might not be something recognizable from a distance but close up it is what binds us together in our communities. Mora states that the reason why so much political capital been spent on eliminating a program that previously served such a small percentage of California’s students (and now serves even fewer) is imbedded in issues of majority/minority politics and conflicts over who has the power to define what it means to be American in an age of growing cultural and linguistic diversity.” Dismissive era (ref. Baker) politics reflects a closed border approach to diversity and an unwillingness to learn from our neighbors. This is potentially more damaging to the psyche of the nation than any outside threat.

The passing of Proposition 227 is seen by many as a travesty; it is also seen as a threat to social justice and constitutional rights. 50 years on from Brown vs. Board of Ed. the state of educational equity in this country is at risk of being hijacked by pressure groups seeking uniformity rather than diversity. It essential that we as educators are informed and thus able to implement quality bilingual education that to the untrained eye works. Proposition 227 was successfully passed as it was put before the public as an either/or situation. No middle ground was ever on the agenda. It is this middle we must aim to put on the table. Bilingual education does not suit every ELL but many students in the state of California are suffering due to a lack of quality native language instruction. It is these students and their communities that we must reach out to in order to promote a more just and equitable society.



[1] The study analyzed all the news and feature stories about bilingual education or Proposition 227 that were published in the Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee, and San Francisco Chronicle between November 1, 1997 and January 31, 1998. Problems pinpointed by the study include:

  • None of the stories was about successful or failed educational programs — bilingual, “sheltered English immersion,” or other. None of the stories included a visit to a classroom.
  • Two thirds of the stories failed to include any definition of bilingual education.
  • None of the stories examined or evaluated the effectiveness of bilingual education in teaching children English or other subjects.
  • None of the stories examined the academic research on bilingual education.
  • One third of the direct quotes were by campaign spokespeople. The groups of people who will be most affected by Proposition 227– teachers, students, and the parents of students — were under-represented among those people quoted. Only one quote in the entire sample was by a student.



[2] COMMON SENSE ABOUT LEARNING ENGLISH (from Arguments in Favor of Proposition 227, 1998 California Primary Election. Voter Information Guide/Ballot Pamphlet)

  • Learning a new language is easier the younger the age of the child.
  • Learning a language is much easier if the child is immersed in that language.
  • Immigrant children already know their native language; they need the public schools to teach them English.
  • Children who leave school without knowing how to speak, read, and write English are injured for life economically and socially.



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