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Is it okay to teach American kids in Spanish rather than English? California is set to decide (again)

By Amy X. Wang

The US, now home to more Spanish speakers than Spain, has a massively expanding Hispanic population.

No wonder in the past week alone, ahead of the US presidential election, Tim Kaine announced he’d hold an entire rally in Spanish, Hillary Clinton appeared on Univision to dance salsa, and the Republican National Committee doubled down on efforts to cater to a Hispanic TV audience.

It’s against this backdrop that one particular political issue is steadily brewing.

Come Nov. 8, as the country votes for its next president, the state of California will also make a decision about Proposition 58, a proposal that raises the question of whether public K-12 schools in the state should readily offer bilingual education to their students.

California has a fraught history with foreign languages in schools: residents fought viciously in the 1980s and 1990s over whether large-scale immigration of mainly Spanish-speakers was cause enough for the state to adopt multilingual teaching, with supporters claiming it would help foreign-language speakers adapt faster and critics calling the idea anti-American.

In 1998, voters decided in a previous statewide ballot that public schools were required to make English the primary language of teaching. Parents could only place students in bilingual classrooms by specific request. This latest ballot is asking voters to overturn those restrictions, and allow schools to adopt other tongues (like Spanish) as the main language of instruction.

For now, the debate is limited to California alone, but it’s not likely to stay contained for long. The body of research on the positive effects of foreign language instruction is growing and, as the presidential race has proven so far, Spanish education in particular is not far from anybody’s mind.