English-Only Laws

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, voters in California, Arizona, Massachusetts passed ballot measures that dramatically limited language use with regard to how ELLs were instructed. Together, the ballot initiatives in these three states narrowed instruction for about 40 percent of the ELLs in the U.S.[1]

Several studies have been conducted to understand the impact of English-only policies on ELLs, many of which are summarized in UCLA professor Patricia Gándara’s Forbidden Language: English Learners and Restrictive Language Policies. The book’s introduction notes that these English-only policies for ELLs “do not appear to meet the courts’ mandate to show success over time.”

Impact evaluations conducted in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts since the passage of English-only policies have been largely unfavorable. For the most part, achievement gaps between ELLs and non-ELLs in California have stayed constant or even increased since the laws’ passage. Additionally, when compared to ELLs in states without English-only laws, Reading and Math achievement have stagnated in Arizona. The passage of English-only laws in Massachusetts saw both an increase in numbers of ELLs dropping out before graduation and ELLs identified as having special needs. Moreover, research comparing ELLs in English-only and bilingual education programs has provided substantial backing for the latter. For instance, a meta-analysis of studies on ELLs in Arizona showed positive outcomes in both English and home language development for students in bilingual compared to students enrolled in English-only programs. However, California and Massachusetts are seeing a shift back toward bilingual education.


The first English-only measure—Proposition 227—passed in California in 1998. This measure required that all ELLs be instructed exclusively in English and effectively eliminated bilingual education programs that taught students in their home languages. Instead, the mandate required that ELLs be taught in sheltered English immersion for one year before being transitioned into mainstream classes. In just a few years, the percentage of ELLs enrolled in some form of bilingual education plummeted from around 30 percent to 10 percent or less. However, the  “California Multilingual Education Act” is on the ballot in 2016. If passed, this initiative would allow for languages other than English to be used during ELL instruction.


In 2000, Proposition 203 passed in Arizona. Similar to California’s law, this measure repealed existing bilingual education laws and required that ELLs be educated through structured English immersion for one year. Then in 2006, Arizona passed House Bill 2064. This bill created the Arizona ELL Task Force, which was given the power to oversee the implementation of ELL instruction throughout the state, a power generally prescribed to the State Board of Education. The Task Force further reduced districts’ flexibility in choosing models for ELL instruction by creating a formal structured English immersion model that mandated separate four-hour blocks of English language development (ELD) for ELLs, and extended the period that the ELD block would be used daily with ELLs to two years. While the Task Force was dissolved and its powers were returned to Arizona’s State Board of Education in 2013, the four-hour block of ELD remains.2

This model of ELL instruction has been the subject of a series of long-standing and controversial court cases against Arizona, in which the length of time students spend in ELD classes has been challenged. The court cases date back to a 23-year-old lawsuit against Arizona’s ELL programs where plaintiffs claimed the programs were in violation of EEOA. Critics of the program point to the drawbacks of segregating ELL students for a significant portion of the school day and of diverting them from content area instruction. They note that the ELD blocks create a heavy burden on older ELLs, since the blocks get in the way of completing the required course credits in academic content areas to graduate high school. In the latest court decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, judges upheld Arizona’s ELL four-hour block program on the grounds that it is in fact “adequate” and does not violate EEOA.


In 2002, Massachusetts passed Question 2, which eliminated the state’s existing transitional bilingual education classes and instead required that ELLs be enrolled in sheltered English immersion, also for one year. Similar to California’s attempt to move back towards bilingual education, the “Language Opportunities for our Kids” bill was recently introduced in the Massachusetts State Legislature. If passed, it would allow districts to choose the type of language programs available to ELLs.


  1. Estimated using 2002-2003 data.

  2. Information on House Bill 2064 was retrieved from the 2013 policy research paper, "English Language Learners: What's at Stake for Arizona," produced by Arizona State University and the Morrison Institute for Public Policy.