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Twenty-five years have passed since California voters approved the anti-immigrant ballot measure Proposition 187, known as the Save Our State initiative. As we mark this anniversary, it is appropriate to reflect on the history of legislation affecting immigrants’ education, as well as California’s transformation into one of the most pro-immigrant states today.

In 1994, the state was experiencing a seismic shift in demographics: the number of non-Latino whites had decreased by 20 percent, while the number of Latinos and Asians/Pacific Islanders increased significantly. Deindustrialization and a wave of policies cutting taxes for the wealthiest in the 1980s and 1990s began to shake the foundation of the working and middle classes. In this context, politicians campaigned by fanning the flames of fear and hate. The scapegoat: people of color and immigrants.

Proposition 187 was passed by California voters in a referendum on Nov. 8, 1994. It proposed to establish a state-run citizenship screening system and prohibit illegal immigrants from using public education, non-emergency health care, and other state services.

Photo courtesy Latino Community Foundation

Prop. 187 sparked a movement that fired up generations of disenfranchised immigrants, emboldening activists to fight an unjust system and make our voices heard. With students organizing massive walkouts and unions organizing hundreds of thousands of Latino and Asian workers, union leaders of today were born in the crucible of the fight. Prop. 187 united us like never before.

CTA fought against Prop. 187 as part of its “Caring for Kids” campaign and supported a competing measure, Proposition 186, which would have provided universal single-payer health coverage to all, including immigrants. “Illegal immigration is a problem, but Prop. 187 won’t fix it,” said CTA President D.A. (Del) Weber. “Prop. 187 will only make a bad situation worse.”

The day after Proposition 187 was approved by voters, several groups filed federal lawsuits against it, including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), the League of Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and the ACLU. Two days later, on Nov. 11, the measure was found unconstitutional by a federal district court. In 1999, Gov. Gray Davis halted state appeals of this ruling, leaving the permanent injunction against Prop. 187 standing.

Propositions 227 and 58

Proposition 227 (Ron Unz’s English for the Children initiative) was passed by voters on the June 2, 1998, statewide primary ballot. Proposition 227 changed the way that “limited English proficient” (LEP) students are taught in California. Specifically, it:

  • Required all public school instruction to be conducted in English, except in special cases. Most bilingual classes were eliminated.
  • Shortened the time that most LEP students could stay in special classes to become proficient in English.
  • Eliminated most programs in the state that provided multiyear special classes to LEP students.

CTA took the lead in opposing Prop. 227, arguing that it would take away local control of language programs that were working well; and it would shift the major responsibility for educating language-minority students away from bilingual and second-language educators and onto the teachers in regular classrooms, many of whom did not have specialized training in teaching language-minority students.

“It has one very negative side effect,” wrote CTA President Lois Tinson. “It will allow teachers to be sued in court by parents and members of the public. … It would put thousands of California teachers at risk. Never before have individual teachers been held liable for something that could be said in a classroom to assist a student — and the teachers would have to pay for their defense out of their own pockets.”

Most of Prop. 227 was repealed by Proposition 58, the LEARN (Language Education, Acquisition and Readiness Now) initiative, which California voters passed by 74 percent on Nov. 8, 2016. Prop. 58 required school districts to solicit parent and community input in developing language acquisition programs, required instruction to ensure English acquisition as rapidly and effectively as possible, and authorized school districts to establish dual-language immersion programs for both native and non-native English speakers.

CTA campaigned heavily for Prop. 58, arguing that it “gives our students a competitive edge in the global marketplace by expanding their access to multilingual education and allowing teachers, parents and schools more control over the curriculum. It broadens instructional methods school districts can use to teach English to English learners, while expanding opportunities for English-speaking students to learn a second language.”

Click here to download CTA’s guidelines for implementing Prop. 58.

Celebrate with LA Federation of Labor!

Los Angeles County Federation of Labor is planning a special event to mark the 25th anniversary of the passage of Prop. 187 and celebrate the activism and progress that was sparked by it. It will be held Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., at Los Angeles State Historic Park, 1245 N. Spring St. The event will include free food, live music, a resource fair, immigration legal services, and family fun. Musical guests are Aloe Blacc, Raúl Pacheco and Asdru Sierra (Ozomatli), Pete Escovedo, Poncho Sanchez, Amara La Negra, Los Rakas, SuenaTron, DJ Sizzle (Cumbiatón), and Jose Cordon.

Click here for tickets to the free event.