There is a divide that rings through the United States. It’s a divide that is on full display in this year’s dramatic, public, and sometimes unbelievable presidential race. The divide stems from the nation’s views on immigration, diversity, and tolerance.

It’s a divide that I sensed as an 8-year-old, when I immigrated to California and was thrust into an English-only classroom with little support — all the while hearing that new opportunities were now open to me like never before. Our national incoherence on immigration and multiculturalism — a mishmash of rumbling about building a border wall versus investing in the education of immigrant children — are particularly consequential for dual language learners (DLLs) and the country’s future.

This plays out more clearly in the state of California — with its 1.5 million DLLs — than anywhere else in the U.S.

A Divide Between Systems: Linking Early Childhood Education and K–12 for DLLs

According to the State of Preschool 2015, a state-by-state NIEER report that summarizes access to early childhood education, California’s preschoolers access education through one of two programs — Head Start or California State Preschool Program (CSPP).

With CSPP — which largely operates in existing elementary schools — serving only 34 percent of California’s preschoolers, the majority of DLLs who are in school prior of kindergarten are enrolled in Head Start programs. Most California Head Start programs, unlike CSPP, operate in community-based centers unattached to schools. That physical separation between a large portion of Pre-K classrooms and kindergarten classrooms creates a barrier that makes communication difficult.

A resource guide from the California Department of Education concerning Preschool English Learners says, “knowing what comes next is essential for teachers, parents and administrators as they work to help young preschool English learners make a successful transition to school.”

It’s hard for preschool teachers to know what is coming next for their DLLs when their centers remain disconnected from the larger public education system, and when their students go on to attend a myriad of different elementary schools. Additionally, teacher assignments are not known until late in the summer.

Early childhood researcher Linda Espinosa argues that well-coordinated alignment between Pre-K and the lower elementary grades is important for DLLs because research has shown it as a way of “promoting and sustaining early learning gains that will help to reduce the achievement gaps between more advantaged children and those growing up in reduced economic circumstances.”

With the creation of transitional kindergarten and the further expansion of CSPP, there have been recent efforts to bring pre-K programs into — and align them with — elementary schools. Moving in this direction would be beneficial for DLLs, since it will allow for better continuity during a vulnerable period of their linguistic development.

Divided Language Policies: Multilingual Early Education and English-only K–12

As previously mentioned, there are considerable differences between the DLL policies governing early childhood education and K–12 education in California.

A recent EdSource report by researchers Louis Freedberg and Susan Frey discuss components of early childhood education in California and emphasize that “early childhood education programs have the advantage of not being burdened by the provision of Proposition 227, the 1998 voter initiative that effectively outlawed bilingual education in California’s K-12 schools.”

Without the restrictions set forth by Proposition 227, the state’s early childhood educators are encouraged to support a child’s home language in the classroom. The Head Start manual says, “the continued development of the child’s home language — with explicit emphasis upon the development of strong oral language skills — is a direct source of support for the child’s acquisition of English.”

Researchers Freedberg and Frey state that half of early childhood teachers “speak more than one language, including about 37 percent who speak some Spanish.” That diversity makes it easier to foster home languages in pre-K classrooms than in K–12 settings. Freedberg and Frey note that DLLs’ growing native language fluency can serve as a strong foundation for their acquisition of English.

That foundation, however, is only built for certain DLLs. Students enrolled in the state’s pre-K program, which serves four-year-olds, and transitional kindergarten (TK), which serves slightly older four-year-olds, find their educations shaped by different policies. TK, a program unique to California, is offered to students whose fifth birthday falls between September 2nd and December 2nd. TK classrooms must abide by the guidelines set forth by Proposition 227.

Furthermore, multilingualism is particularly hard to support in California’s K–12 classrooms. Since 1998, when nearly all schools converted their longstanding bilingual programs into English-only classrooms, demand for bilingual teachers has decreased. This has led to fewer teachers seeking bilingual certification, which shrank the state’s’ bilingual K–12 teaching force.

As a result of the division between these various policies, progress toward bilingualism that is formed in early childhood is often halted in elementary school. This is despite the fact that a growing research consensus has suggested that English-only education is less effective for DLLs’ linguistic and academic development.

Balancing Research, Public Preferences, and Pragmatism in Language Education

In 2014, the LA Times wrote an article debating the merits of bringing back bilingual education: “there were good reasons Proposition 227 passed. Bilingual education is more expensive. The state suffered continual shortages of qualified bilingual teachers. Worse, bilingual education was poorly done.”

It is true that the United States has limited pipelines for recruiting and preparing qualified bilingual teachers. It is also true that bilingual education in the past was sometimes poorly implemented. Freedberg and Frey point to a trickling effect: the lack of college professors who are competent enough in the field of bilingual education makes it difficult to train high numbers of high-quality bilingual teachers, which in turn means that less DLLs are being reached and benefitting from quality bilingual education.

This vicious cycle makes it likely that California will continue to suffer shortages of qualified bilingual teachers until it develops more bilingual professors and helps colleges to expand their bilingual education certification programs. As it stands, few teachers seek bilingual certification because it is an additional cost and they are seldom compensated for it. Geographic or financial hurdles can also prevent teachers from finding colleges with adequate bilingual education courses. Any serious effort to revive and improve bilingual education in California schools can’t just overturn the state’s English-only mandate. DLL advocates will also need to clear these core pragmatic hurdles.

Choosing Time: Picking a Plural Future

California is the most populous state in America, with over 30 million people. It is the state with the highest concentration of DLLs — its schools enroll approximately one-third of U.S. DLLs. If it were its own country, it would have the world’s seventh-largest economy. So California’s response to current debates and divisions related to immigration and diversity has major implications for its residents and the country as a whole.

This fall, California voters have a rare opportunity to vote on a ballot measure, the Multilingual Education Act, that would expand the availability of bilingual education models in the state’s K–12 classrooms.

The California education system has been vacillating between its multilingual and English-only policies for almost two decades. Many of the youngest learners in California get a strong bilingual foundation in their early childhood education experiences, but when those same students arrive in kindergarten or even transitional kindergarten, they encounter a very different educational environment.

This sort of disjuncture is bad policy — and bad for kids. Bridging that gap and closing the divides mentioned above could ease this tension and guarantee that California’s many multilingual students reach their full potential.

This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team’s work. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter, click here, enter your contact information, and select “DLL National Work Group Newsletter.”

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Sammi Wong

Sammi Wong is a Summer 2016 intern for the Education Policy program. She is a member of the Dual Language Learner National Work Group. Before joining New America, she taught as a bilingual lead teacher at Bridgeport Child Development Center in Chicago as a Teach For America corp member. She holds a master of science in Early Childhood Education from Dominican University and a bachelor of arts in Print and Digital Journalism from the University of Southern California.