Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings this week focused often on her 12-year tenure as a board member of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (PRLDEF). The extent of her involvement with the group’s agenda bore much scrutiny, as critics sought to brand its positions as extreme. But the more enduring question, and the subject of far less discussion, has been whether PRLDEF’s positions on important questions of education policy represent the best interests of the children it purports to help.
Without question, PRLDEF’s policy leadership has been highly effective drawing needed attention to the educational needs and challenges facing children who are native Spanish speakers, particularly in New York City. Its legal advocacy on behalf of the education organization Aspira led to an historic consent decree in 1974, and ultimately to a broad-based, systemwide implementation of bilingual education. Similar consent decrees soon appeared in other cities with large populations of English learners. But the programs they created became increasingly problematic, especially as they became entrenched in these large, urban school districts.
PRLDEF claimed credit for helping teachers, proclaiming that they had, “opened the door for many Spanish speaking teachers, who the city was forced to hire.” Housed in segregated classrooms, often taught exclusively in Spanish or Mandarin, New York City’s bilingual education quickly became insulated from accountability for academic results. Operating independently in many of the city’s 59 Community School Districts, they established a track record of minimal academic gains. Students in these programs were much more likely to drop out of school than ever to become proficient in English. Progress toward English fluency was so scant that it became only a secondary goal, behind other priorities like boosting self-esteem, preserving non-English languages or reinforcing multicultural viewpoints.
But PRLDEF remained a fierce defender for these poorly-performing programs. By arguing that students needed to remain in bilingual education for many years, the programs functioned as much as a jobs program for teachers as a chance to provide opportunities for students. “Parents typically are not informed about their right to opt out of bilingual education,” concluded a Commission chaired by Deputy Mayor Randy Mastro, who recommended ending the consent decree. But PRLDEF President Juan Figueroa often preferred to discuss the importance of preserving non-English, native languages rather than the importance of teaching English. PRLDEF activists were frequently quick to counter critics of bilingual education with their own harsh rhetoric, while broadening their defense of bilingual education around the nation.
While its involvement in issues beyond education grew, its education policy voice grew more shrill. During deliberations leading to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the organization opposed requiring parental consent for placement in bilingual education. It defended a federal requirement that all federal funds for English learners go only to programs that teach at least 75 percent of the time in students’ non-English, native languages. With accountability for academic results now a fixture in American public education, it is difficult to see such views having a place in its future.
Find Archived Articles: