The California Department of Education has announced the creation of 1,200 dual-language programs in public schools over the next 12 years. But some critics say this initiative doesn’t go far enough.
California has a population of 40 million people but only seven French-English bilingual public schools. The state intends to make up for this shortcoming through the Global California 2030 program inspired in part by Utah, which has created 20 French-English immersion programs since 2007. California hopes that half of all students in public schools will be enrolled in such a program by 2030, and that three quarters of them will speak at least two foreign languages by 2040.
The Californian initiative was developed after the November 2016 vote on Proposition 58 that lifted the ban on students being taught in non-English languages and authorized the creation of immersive classes.
The program does not specify how much time will be given to each language. The spokesperson for the Department of Education, Bill Ainsworth, has however stated that the decision to open a dual-language program in a school will be left to the school districts. The state’s 978 districts are autonomous, but “we are trying to encourage them and demonstrate the benefits of a bilingual education,” he says.
Ten Grants of 300,000 Dollars
In an effort to achieve this goal, Californian representatives are considering a law that will award ten grants of 300,000 dollars from September 1, 2019, to school districts to encourage them to create a dual-language program. What’s more, Bill Ainsworth has confirmed that discussions are underway with the French Consulate in San Francisco to help train Californian teachers and recruit others from France.
“We’re on the right track, but it’s still not enough,” says Gabrielle Durana, the president of the Education Française Bay Area association that offers extracurricular French classes in the San Francisco region. “Three hundred thousand dollars is too little. This is a drop in the ocean.” The San Francisco Unified School District budget for the 2018-2019 school year will close to $900 millions.
“It will be up to the parents to take action and convince their school districts, but the dispersion of these districts makes things more difficult,” she says. For example, Santa Rosa is a town of 175,000 people north of San Francisco and has nine independent school districts. Parents in each district will have to appeal to the authorities to instate a dual-language program in elementary schools, and then start all over again to obtain the same thing in middle schools and high schools. It’s a real obstacle course.”
Certain school districts are more motivated than others. In Los Angeles, the local government requires that all students starting kindergarten this year speak at least one foreign language by the time they graduate from high school. But the San Francisco school districts have “more pressing priorities” than bilingualism, according to Gabrielle Durana. “They first have to take care of homeless students.”
Meeting the Demands of Families
The initiative of the California Department of Education worries Sarah Finck, a French teacher at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino and the president of the American Association of Teachers of French (AATF) for Northern California. “Will the state meet the demands of families?” she asks. In her high school in Silicon Valley, most students already speak a language other than English at home, generally Hindi and Mandarin. “Families are already aware of the importance of foreign languages. But we will have to make considerable efforts to convince political decisionmakers that French deserves its place in the program.”
According to statistics from the California Department of Education, French is the second-most popular language with students after Spanish. In 2017, 3,992 young Californians received the Seal of Biliteracy, a diploma proving their excellent standard of French after graduating from high school. The same year, 36,158 students received the same distinction for their abilities in Spanish.
Gabrielle Durana criticizes the Global California 2030 program for not being “more ambitious” and “more interventionist.” Without real input from the state, she says, dual-language programs will mainly be introduced in wealthier areas where parents have the time and means to advocate for change and interact with local officials. “California could achieve so much more in terms of bilingualism if it adopted a more global policy. And it’s possible: Utah has done it.”