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Culture Wars
Déjà Vu in California

Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Pokémon, campus PC: In more ways than one, 2016 feels like a funhouse mirror re-run of the 1990s.

But there’s more: In November, the Golden State will once again hold a referendum on the fate of bilingual education. Californians last considered this question in 1998, when more than 60 percent voted for the “English in Public Schools Initiative,” or Proposition 227, which sharply curtailed bilingual instruction for non-native English speakers (largely first-generation Mexican immigrants). Now, the state legislature is asking a demographically transformed population to reverse this judgment and once again allow significant Spanish instruction for English language learners. The Sacramento Bee reports:

Placed on the Nov. 8 ballot by legislators in 2014, Proposition 58 will ask voters to remove the restrictions of Proposition 227. Supporters want to make it easier for schools to establish bilingual programs for both English learners and native English speakers seeking to gain fluency in a foreign language. […]

If it can cut through the noise of an election season heavy with 17 ballot measures, Proposition 58 may be a moment of political déjà vu, as voters again debate the best method for getting California’s 1.4 million English learners – more than a fifth of all public school students in the state – to proficiency.

Advocates of Proposition 227 say the measure has been a success, pointing to improved Latino test scores and improved college attendance rates. Critics, for their part, have pointed to long-run benefits of bilingual instruction.

There is very little polling on Proposition 58, so it’s impossible to forecast how it will turn out. But if anything is certain, it’s that the measure won’t be decided on the basis of academic studies and empirical evidence. This is first and foremost a contest over the politics of multiculturalism and the importance of assimilation. And the results will provide a crucial insight into the mood of California’s trailblazing voters at a time of great upheaval over the meaning of American national identity.

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