Earlier this month, California voters soundly rejected bilingual education. Proposition 227, the “English for the Children Initiative,” won widespread support among white and Hispanic voters despite being opposed by President Clinton, all four major candidates for Governor, the state’s large and powerful teachers’ unions and the education bureaucracy. As a result, the state — with 1.3 million students classified as “Limited English Proficient” — will be teaching them almost entirely in English when the new school year starts this Fall.
What impact does the California proposition’s stunning victory hold for the rest of the country? California’s massive and largely ineffectual bilingual establishment, born of a social experiment thirty years ago, is being dismantled virtually overnight, barring possible intervention from the courts. But what about the rest of the nation? Bilingual education programs can be found in all fifty states. It would be wrong to assume that the problems of such a widespread approach are limited to California, or the costs.
The Clinton Administration sought $387 million in federal spending for bilingual education in its 1999 budget request, a drop in the bucket compared with the estimated $8 billion spent annually by state and local governments prior to the recent vote, according to Linda Chavez of the Center for Equal Opportunity.
But as deeply rooted as bilingual education has become in the nation’s schools, and with such a troubled record, its real costs are even greater. Children in bilingual programs generally learn English slower, later, and less effectively than their peers. The bilingual approach delays for years the time when students can graduate to “mainstream” classrooms. Many children are in bilingual programs for five to seven years and do not even learn to write English until the fourth or fifth grade.
Furthermore, an article in Education Week pointed out that a number of New York City students in bilingual classrooms actually scored lower on English-proficiency tests at the end of the school year than at the beginning.
Prominent economists Richard Vedder and Lowell Galloway of the University of Ohio recently studied the costs to the American economy resulting from poor English fluency among immigrants and estimated the costs of lost productivity to be approximately $80 billion annually.
How could bilingual education have become so vast and yet so ineffective in the thirty years since its inception? The answer may reside in large part with the fact that those responsible for its administration have lost sight of its original goals.
Congressman Claude Pepper, a sponsor of the 1967 Bilingual Education Opportunity Act, explained during the discussion on the bill that, “By about third grade, when concepts of reading and language have been firmly established, they (children) will begin the shift to broadened English usage.”
The only reason children are segregated out of mainstream classrooms in the first place is because they lack the English skills they need. But much of the bilingual establishment has lost sight of this, often inventing their own goals. A 1995 report by the Office of Bilingual Education of the U. S. Department of Education advises teachers that “maintaining primary language proficiency is a key long-term goal.” The report adds:
To help students overcome the obstacles presented by an English-dominated educational system without losing the resource of fluency in a second language. . . . . Teachers must be able to recognize the cultural origins of their own behavior and to respond reflectively to students who might be acting under the influence of an alternative, culturally based expectation.
The current movement to end bilingual education began when Hispanic parents in Los Angeles began keeping their children at home in protest because they weren’t learning English at school. Those parents and others are far less concerned about an “English-dominated educational system” than they are with simply having their children learn English. Spanish can often be maintained and spoken at home, making intensive English instruction in school that much more important.
Now California has shown the way to removing the obstacles of bilingual education. But for the rest of the country, as long as the diffuse and obscure goals of the education bureaucrats continue to take precedence over parents who just want their children to learn English in school, bilingual education will continue to stand in the way of progress.
For information please call Don Soifer at 703-522-5828.
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