Prop 58 digs up Santa Barbara’s heated past

Nearly twenty years ago, Santa Barbara banned bilingual education before the state did

When Californians go to the polls on Tuesday, they will decide whether or not to repeal a ban on bilingual education. Proposition 58 would end an English-only mandate and allow public schools to re-introduce instruction in multiple languages.

Bilingual education is a controversial subject in California, and it has a particularly bitter history in Santa Barbara.

In 1998, California voted for Proposition 227, a controversial ballot measure mandating an “English First” approach to language education. Supporters of the measure thought kids who came to school without speaking English should be mainstreamed into English-language classes as quickly as possible. But, even before the state passed that law, the Santa Barbara School Board had the same idea.

At the time, two-thirds of the students at Santa Barbara Unified School District were Latino, and most were taught primarily in Spanish.

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A bilingual classroom at Franklin Elementary School, taught by Mrs. Maria Rey.
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Lanny Ebenstein digs through old articles written about Santa Barbara’s bilingual education battle. (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW)

“The theory of bilingual education was that 90 percent or more of instruction was in Spanish,” said Lanny Ebenstein, who was on the school board at the time. “There was basically a situation where Latino kids were in one set of classrooms and white kids were in another set of classrooms.”

In addition to the issue of segregation, he believed the bilingual education program delayed students’ ability to read, write and speak proper English.

At a meeting that drew over 600 parents, teachers and students, the all-white Santa Barbara School board voted unanimously to scrap its bilingual program and teach students in English only. A few months later, California voters made that same decision.

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Santa Barbara’s ban on bilingual education made state and national headlines. (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW)

Maria Rey was a bilingual teacher at Franklin Elementary School at the time. She and her husband went to those meetings to advocate for the benefits of bilingual education. They believed students should be taught academics in their primary language while learning English.

“I truly believe that, if we could have continued, the board would have seen the true results of bilingual education,” she said. 

The debate was heated and Ebenstein says it got ugly. 

“People who were in favor of bilingual education being reformed like me were told by people like the Reys that we were racist and against Latino children,” he said.

Ebenstein points to test scores. A year after bilingual education was banned, district 2nd graders’ scores jumped 10 points in reading, nine points in math and six points in language.

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A 1998 article in the Santa Barbara Independent showed test scores jumped a year after bilingual education was banned.

After the board voted out bilingual education, Rey and other advocates say they were the targets of a backlash.

“They said to us, ‘you can not even speak Spanish.’ We went from bilingual to ‘you can not speak Spanish in the classroom,'” said Rey. 

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Rey teaching her students. (Ruben Rey)

Today, Rey and Ebenstein still feel the same way they did back in 1998. Next Tuesday, Rey will vote yes on Prop 58.

“I would love to see the district start a bilingual program,” she said. “Maybe a school. Get the right training. Look into it,” said Rey. 

“We’ve never talked about it, and I really can’t say for sure how the board would vote, but I think the board would absolutely consider having a conversation about this,” said current school board member Monique Limón. 

Limón sits on a school board that looks very different from the one in ’98. Today, two members are Latino and bilingual.

Nearly 5,000 students at Santa Barbara Unified School District, one in three, are not fluent in English. Currently, they’re expected to master the English language by third grade. Prop. 58 could affect how they’re taught going forward. 


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