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Press Release · February 7, 2002

English Learners: A Growing Challenge for California’s Public Schools

California’s status as a favored destination for immigrants has had a profound effect on the state’s public school system. In 2000, nearly 25 percent of all public school children in California were identified as having only limited English language skills. As state policymakers seek to improve accountability and student performance in the K-12 system, understanding the challenges of English learners – many of whom lag behind their peers academically – is critical.

A new analysis by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) sheds light on the growth and widening geographic range of English learners in the state. The report, The Linguistic Landscape of California Schools, analyzes data from the Department of Education (and other sources) and finds:

  • Although public school enrollment has grown by 50 percent over the past two decades, the number of students with limited English proficiency has grown 300 percent.

  • Many California children designated as English learners are citizens, born in the United States to immigrant parents.

  • 83 percent of English learners speak Spanish as a primary language. However, 55 other languages are tracked in the California schools today, and 175,000 English learners in the state speak a primary language other than Spanish. The most prevalent of these other languages are Vietnamese, Hmong, Cantonese, Filipino, and Cambodian.

  • Although the number of English learners in the Los Angeles area increased 231 percent over the past two decades, the region’s share of English learners statewide actually declined from 60 percent two decades ago to 51 percent in 2000. Over the same period, the Inland Empire, the Sacramento area, and the San Joaquin Valley experienced far more dramatic increases in this population. In the Inland Empire, the English learner population grew 656 percent between 1981 and 2000.

Please call or email me (415/291-4436 or to request more information or to speak to the report’s author, research associate Sonya Tafoya.

PPIC is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to objective, nonpartisan research on economic, social, and political issues that affect Californians. The Institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. David W. Lyon is President and CEO of PPIC.