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Politics and the English Language in California: Bilingual Education at the Polls

  • Author(s): Citrin, Jack
  • Levy, Morris
  • Wong, Cara J.
  • et al.
Abstract

By a large margin, Californians passed the English Proficiency, Multilingual Education Initiativein November 2016, despite the fact that Proposition 58 gutted Proposition 227, which effectivelyended bilingual education in 1998. We conclude that it would be simplistic to call thismassive change in policy a result that the “times had changed,” either demographically or evenin terms of underlying attitudes toward language. Instead, the victory of Prop 58 seems due inlarge part to political strategy rather than a radical shift in the electorate. The proportions of Latinoand Asian registered voters have certainly increased over the last decade and a half, as hasthe proportion of liberal Democrats. Nevertheless, there is a limit to what these demography-asdestinyaccounts can explain. Instead, using survey experiments in three California-wide surveys,we show that underlying attitudes about teaching the English language have been relatively stable,and that many voters supported Prop 58 without being aware that it reinstated bilingual education.When this was made clear, voters changed their positions, particularly among whites andconservatives. What was salient were the first two words on the ballot label, “English Proficiency”and this is an almost universally accepted goal.

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