May 20, 2024

In 1976, California assemblyman Peter Chacón and state senator George R. Moscone introduced Assembly Bill 1329: The Chacón-Moscone Bilingual Bicultural Education Act, making bilingual education mandatory in California. With support from a broad constituency, and after much debate in the state legislature, the bill became law. AB-1329 required that all limited- and non-English-speaking children enrolled in California’s public schools receive instruction in a language they understand and that school districts provide them access to a standard curriculum.

The act also mandated that the state provide federal, state, and local dollars to pay for these services. For a decade, the Chacón-Moscone bill (as it came to be known) was the most progressive, single most important bilingual legislation in the country. The political climate of the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s was ripe for the Chacón-Moscone bill. Minority groups involved in the civil rights movement pressed for their rights, as well as educational and economic opportunities.

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” recognized that minority communities, particularly African Americans and Hispanics, were economically disadvantaged and needed federal support to provide their children with equal educational opportunities. Head Start programs targeted instruction to children from these communities and opened the door to the use of Spanish language instruction.

At the federal level, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) laid a foundation for legislation that transformed public education and ushered in a new era of bilingual education across the country, including California. Title VI banned discrimination on the basis of race, color, creed, or national origin; declared a strong legislative policy against discrimination in public schools and colleges; and prohibited discrimination in all federally funded programs.

The ESEA sparked a flurry of reforms, pouring in over $11 billion per year to state educational agencies (SEAs), marking the most significant federal intervention in the history of American education. Until then, little had been done to ameliorate low academic performance among poor, immigrant, and non-English-speaking children in public schools. Congress passed Title VII of ESEA in 1968, the Bilingual Education Act, funding the first 68 bilingual education programs in the nation.

In 1972, the Massachusetts legislature passed the Transitional Bilingual Education Act, the first state-approved bilingual legislation in the nation, mandating bilingual education programs in all school districts with 20 or more children from the same non-English-language background. It would be the first of only nine states to require bilingual instruction in all school districts. In California, Assembly Bill 2284, the Chacón Discretionary Bilingual Education Act of 1972, became the state’s first bilingual education bill.

The Chacón bill allowed bilingual programs in all school districts with limited- and non-English-speaking children. California did not mandate bilingual education; instead, it permitted school boards broad discretion to address the educational needs of limited- and non-English-speaking children, allowing them to compete for available but limited program development dollars.