Proposition 227

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Proposition 227


By: Ron Unz

Date: June 2, 1998

Source: California Secretary of State. "Proposition 227." 〈〉 (accessed June 10, 2006).

About the Author: Ron Unz, a physicist and chairman of a software company in California, drafted Proposition 227 and led the campaign to pass the initiative.


On June 2, 1998, Californians approved a mandate for English-only instruction in the public schools by a margin of sixty-one percent to thirty-nine percent. Proposition 227 came in response to fears that national unity would be damaged by encouraging the use of Spanish in schools and in other arenas. The legislation was part of a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment that swept the United States at that time.

In the United States, bilingual education was not uncommon in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Linguistic diversity was acknowledged and tolerated, if not always encouraged. In California, both English and Spanish schools existed. In the Midwest, German-language schools served the large number of German immigrants. French-language public schools served the French-speaking communities in Louisiana and northern New England. Other languages such as Norwegian, Lithuanian, and Czech were part of the curriculum in areas with large numbers of immigrants from these areas.

In the late nineteenth century, the movement for the Common School, or public school, and compulsory education gained momentum as large numbers of poorly educated immigrants arrived on American shores. The influx of these immigrants, who were predominantly Catholics from southern and eastern Europe, prompted a strong xenophobic (anti-foreigner) reaction among the native-born, who were chiefly Protestants of northern and western European stock. Local leaders became increasingly worried about changes in their communities resulting from a swelling among the ranks of the children of the foreign-born. Mandatory education served as a means to ensure that the children of immigrants were assimilated into American (in other words, Anglo-Saxon/northern European Protestant) culture. Public schools came to be seen as the primary institution for this duty.

This task of assimilating foreign children raised the issue of a common language of instruction that would represent American society. The loss of the national-origin language represented the abandonment of the foreign culture of origin. State legislatures began to pass laws regulating the language of public school instruction. California, among others, passed an English-only instruction law. In 1923, in Meyer v. Nebraska, the Supreme Court stopped the English-only trend by ruling that a Nebraska state law prohibiting the teaching of a foreign language to elementary students was unconstitutional. Following this decision, the strict English-only instruction laws were generally either repealed or ignored. However, the Supreme Court had also declared in Meyer v. Nebraska that the United States is an English-speaking country and schools could require the use of English. At the millennium, English-only legislation made a comeback.

Ron Unz, a multimillionaire software developer and former Republican candidate for governor, conceived and financed the campaign for Proposition 227. He entitled the bill English for the Children. Unlike previous English-only advocates, Unz made special efforts to separate opposition to bilingual education from anti-immigrant and anti-Latino views.


Chapter 3. English Language Education for Immigrant Children

Article 1. Findings and Declarations

300. The People of California find and declare as follows:

(a) Whereas, The English language is the national public language of the United States of America and of the State of California, is spoken by the vast majority of California residents, and is also the leading world language for science, technology, and international business, thereby being the language of economic opportunity; and

(b) Whereas, Immigrant parents are eager to have their children acquire a good knowledge of English, thereby allowing them to fully participate in the American Dream of economic and social advancement; and

(c) Whereas, The government and the public schools of California have a moral obligation and a constitutional duty to provide all of California's children, regardless of their ethnicity or national origins, with the skills necessary to become productive members of our society, and of these skills, literacy in the English language is among the most important; and

(d) Whereas, The public schools of California currently do a poor job of educating immigrant children, wasting financial resources on costly experimental language programs whose failure over the past two decades is demonstrated by the current high drop-out rates and low English literacy levels of many immigrant children; and

(e) Whereas, Young immigrant children can easily acquire full fluency in a new language, such as English, if they are heavily exposed to that language in the classroom at an early age.

(f) Therefore, It is resolved that: all children in California public schools shall be taught English as rapidly and effectively as possible.

Article 2. English Language Education

305. Subject to the exceptions provided in Article 3 (commencing with Section 310), all children in California public schools shall be taught English by being taught in English. In particular, this shall require that all children be placed in English language classrooms. Children who are English learners shall be educated through sheltered English immersion during a temporary transition period not normally intended to exceed one year. Local schools shall be permitted to place in the same classroom English learners of different ages but whose degree of English proficiency is similar. Local schools shall be encouraged to mix together in the same classroom English learners from different native-language groups but with the same degree of English fluency. Once English learners have acquired a good working knowledge of English, they shall be transferred to English language mainstream classrooms. As much as possible, current supplemental funding for English learners shall be maintained, subject to possible modification under Article 8 (commencing with Section 335) below.

306. The definitions of the terms used in this article and in Article 3 (commencing with Section 310) are as follows:

(a) "English learner" means a child who does not speak English or whose native language is not English and who is not currently able to perform ordinary classroom work in English, also known as a Limited English Proficiency or LEP child.

(b) "English language classroom" means a classroom in which the language of instruction used by the teaching personnel is overwhelmingly the English language, and in which such teaching personnel possess a good knowledge of the English language.

(c) "English language mainstream classroom" means a classroom in which the pupils either are native English language speakers or already have acquired reasonable fluency in English.

(d) "Sheltered English immersion" or "structured English immersion" means an English language acquisition process for young children in which nearly all classroom instruction is in English but with the curriculum and presentation designed for children who are learning the language.

(e) "Bilingual education/native language instruction" means a language acquisition process for pupils in which much or all instruction, textbooks, and teaching materials are in the child's native language.

Article 3. Parental Exceptions

310. The requirements of Section 305 may be waived with the prior written informed consent, to be provided annually, of the child's parents or legal guardian under the circumstances specified below and in Section 311. Such informed consent shall require that said parents or legal guardian personally visit the school to apply for the waiver and that they there be provided a full description of the educational materials to be used in the different educational program choices and all the educational opportunities available to the child. Under such parental waiver conditions, children may be transferred to classes where they are taught English and other subjects through bilingual education techniques or other generally recognized educational methodologies permitted by law. Individual schools in which 20 pupils or more of a given grade level receive a waiver shall be required to offer such a class; otherwise, they must allow the pupils to transfer to a public school in which such a class is offered.

311. The circumstances in which a parental exception waiver may be granted under Section 310 are as follows:

(a) Children who already know English: the child already possesses good English language skills, as measured by standardized tests of English vocabulary comprehension, reading, and writing, in which the child scores at or above the state average for his or her grade level or at or above the 5th grade average, whichever is lower; or

(b) Older children: the child is age 10 years or older, and it is the informed belief of the school principal and educational staff that an alternate course of educational study would be better suited to the child's rapid acquisition of basic English language skills; or

(c) Children with special needs: the child already has been placed for a period of not less than thirty days during that school year in an English language classroom and it is subsequently the informed belief of the school principal and educational staff that the child has such special physical, emotional, psychological, or educational needs that an alternate course of educational study would be better suited to the child's overall educational development. A written description of these special needs must be provided and any such decision is to be made subject to the examination and approval of the local school superintendent, under guidelines established by and subject to the review of the local Board of Education and ultimately the State Board of Education. The existence of such special needs shall not compel issuance of a waiver, and the parents shall be fully informed of their right to refuse to agree to a waiver.

Article 4. Community-Based English Tutoring

315. In furtherance of its constitutional and legal requirement to offer special language assistance to children coming from backgrounds of limited English proficiency, the state shall encourage family members and others to provide personal English language tutoring to such children, and support these efforts by raising the general level of English language knowledge in the community. Commencing with the fiscal year in which this initiative is enacted and for each of the nine fiscal years following thereafter, a sum of fifty million dollars ($50,000,000) per year is hereby appropriated from the General Fund for the purpose of providing additional funding for free or subsidized programs of adult English language instruction to parents or other members of the community who pledge to provide personal English language tutoring to California school children with limited English proficiency.

316. Programs funded pursuant to this section shall be provided through schools or community organizations. Funding for these programs shall be administered by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, and shall be disbursed at the discretion of the local school boards, under reasonable guidelines established by, and subject to the review of, the State Board of Education.

Article 5. Legal Standing and Parental Enforcement

320. As detailed in Article 2 (commencing with Section 305) and Article 3 (commencing with Section 310), all California school children have the right to be provided with an English language public education. If a California school child has been denied the option of an English language instructional curriculum in public school, the child's parent or legal guardian shall have legal standing to sue for enforcement of the provisions of this statute, and if successful shall be awarded normal and customary attorney's fees and actual damages, but not punitive or consequential damages. Any school board member or other elected official or public school teacher or administrator who willfully and repeatedly refuses to implement the terms of this statute by providing such an English language educational option at an available public school to a California school child may be held personally liable for fees and actual damages by the child's parents or legal guardian.

Article 6. Severability

325. If any part or parts of this statute are found to be in conflict with federal law or the United States or the California State Constitution, the statute shall be implemented to the maximum extent that federal law, and the United States and the California State Constitution permit. Any provision held invalid shall be severed from the remaining portions of this statute.

Article 7. Operative Date

330. This initiative shall become operative for all school terms which begin more than sixty days following the date on which it becomes effective.

Article 8. Amendment

335. The provisions of this act may be amended by a statute that becomes effective upon approval by the electorate or by a statute to further the act's purpose passed by a two-thirds vote of each house of the Legislature and signed by the Governor.

Article 9. Interpretation

340. Under circumstances in which portions of this statute are subject to conflicting interpretations, Section 300 shall be assumed to contain the governing intent of the statute.


California, in the year that Proposition 227 passed, legally admitted 62,113 people from Mexico. In numbers of immigrants admitted annually and number of Mexican immigrants admitted, it ranked first among all states.

In the 1990s, issues of demographic change polarized Californians. Immigration, race, ethnicity, and language became the topics of heated debates. Public schools became a particular area of concern. The enrollment of limited-English-proficient (LEP) children more than doubled between 1988 and 1998 to 1.4 million children. In 1998, English learners represented about twenty-five percent of California K-12 students and about thirty-three percent of those entering first grade. This remarkable growth stems not only from rising immigration but also from higher birthrates in language-minority communities. Between 1990 and 1996, as the state's population increased by 2.6 million, nine out of ten of the new Californians were Latinos or Asian Americans. These groups expanded to twenty-nine percent and eleven percent, respectively, of state residents, while African Americans held steady at seven percent and non-Latino whites slipped to fifty-three percent. Approaching minority status for the first time since the Gold Rush days of the 1840s, many white Californians began to feel threatened by the impending shift in political power and resentful about paying taxes to benefit other people's children, particularly Spanish-speaking children.

Ron Unz has exported his anti-bilingual campaign to other states, including Arizona and Massachusetts. His timing is especially good, as a debate over poorly controlled immigration from Mexico is fueling the fire for English-only legislation. Meanwhile, only a few bilingual educators have entered the political arena. They argue that the key issue is not finding a program that works for all children and all localities, but rather finding a set of program components that works for the children in a particular community, given that community's goals, demographics, and resources. The efforts of the educators to depoliticize bilingual education have not had a strong impact as of 2006.

Also in 2006, a report commissioned by the California legislature showed some educational gains brought about after implementation of Proposition 227, along with some continuing barriers to improved public education for those students for whom English is a second language. Students across all language classifications in all grades have experienced performance gains on state achievement tests, for example. The likelihood of an English learner to achieve successful completion of the academic criteria needed to reclassify them as fluent English proficient status after ten years in California schools, however, is less than forty percent.



Adams, Karen L. and Daniel T. Brink, eds. Perspectives on Official English: The Campaign for English as the Official Language of the USA. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1990.

Crawford, James. At War with Diversity: U.S. Language Policy in an Age of Anxiety. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters, 2000.

Del Valle, Sandra. Language Rights and the Law in the United States: Finding Our Voices. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters, 2003.

Padilla, Amado M., Halford H. Fairchild, and Concepcion M. Valdez. Bilingual Education: Issues and Strategies. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1990.