On Tuesday, Californians will vote on, and almost certainly pass, a ballot measure re-introducing bilingual education programs for English language learners in public schools. Proposition 58 would repeal Proposition 227, known as the “English in Public Schools” initiative, which was passed in 1998 in response to concerns that Spanish-speaking students (mostly immigrants and children of immigrants) were being placed in Spanish-immersion programs that hindered their ability to learn English and succeed academically.
Californians going to the polls on Tuesday face a whopping 17 ballot initiatives, on subjects from the death penalty to condoms in pornography. Each of them is accompanied by an official summary developed by the state’s attorney general. Here’s the language accompanying Prop. 58:
Preserves requirement that public schools ensure students obtain English language proficiency. Requires school districts to solicit parent/community input in developing language acquisition programs. Requires instruction to ensure English acquisition as rapidly and effectively as possible. Authorizes school districts to establish dual-language immersion programs for both native and non-native English speakers. Fiscal Impact: No notable fiscal effect on school districts or state government.
The operative sentence—”authorizes school districts to establish dual-language immersion programs for both native and non-native English speakers”—is buried under three meaningless sentences clearly intended to cast the law in positive terms. First, there is no mention that Prop. 58 is repealing a bilingual education regime that has been in place in California for 18 years. Second, the statement that instruction will “ensure English acquisition as rapidly and effectively as possible” is more an argument for the bill than a description of its contents. The case against Prop. 58, after all, is that expanding bilingual education will slow English acquisition rates. Third, the positive-sounding phrase “requires school districts to solicit/parent community input” close to the top of the description seems superfluous and misleading—public school boards already solicit input for major curricular changes as a matter of course.
Kamala Harris, the current state attorney general and frontrunner for the U.S. Senate, has been accused of crafting ballot language to favor progressive goals in the past. In 2013, after Harris used language clearly designed to favor public unions and disfavor pension reformers, the Los Angeles Times editorial board cautioned that “it’s the attorney general’s duty to write clear and impartial titles and summaries rather than using them as an opportunity to influence voters.”
There are many critiques of California-style direct democracy—that it asks voters to study an unrealistically wide range of public policy areas, that it grants more power to wealthy interests who can afford signature-gathering required to get measures on the ballot, that it allows the legislature to abdicate its basic responsibilities. The case of Prop. 58 highlights another: It grants wide latitude to the party in power to reframe controversial questions in favorable terms. When voters are asked to decide on a dizzying number of referenda (California’s voter guide is 223 pages this year, excluding local initiatives) the summary language chosen can be decisive.
Instruction for non-English speakers is critically important issue, touching on educational quality, assimilation, and national identity. Prop. 58 is likely to have cultural ripple effects across California and other states. Given the Golden State’s drift toward multiculturalism over the past generation, it’s likely that voters would approve a fairly-worded measure, as well. It’s a shame they won’t get that opportunity.