Article published in San Antonio Express-News
Twenty-five years ago, the U.S. Department of Justice sued Texas to force the state to end segregation in its schools.
District Judge William Wayne Justice ruled that Mexican Americans qualify as an identifiable minority group. As such, like black Americans, they are entitled to attend desegregated schools under the 14th Amendment.
Unfortunately, due to the failure of bilingual education, segregationist policies persist.
Today, one in six Texas schoolchildren has limited English-language skills. These primarily Spanish-speaking children are sent to bilingual programs and cordoned off from their classmates.
As a result, they lag significantly behind their Anglo counterparts. While 74 percent of the state’s seventh-graders passed last year’s Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test, only 55 percent with limited English ability passed.
In fact, with restricted exposure to English, many of these students never achieve proficiency. Among Spanish-speaking students who have attended Texas schools for at least four years, nearly 30 percent fail to learn English, putting them at a socioeconomic disadvantage for the rest of their lives.
In response to this disparity, several Hispanic advocacy groups have taken Texas to court for failing to educate English learners. The solution, they argue, is to expand the state’s bilingual program.
Once again, Justice is presiding over the case.
The solution doesn’t lie in more of the same. Texas should overhaul its program by replicating the efforts of states that have made progress with their own immigrant populations.
Just look at California.
In 1998, after recognizing that bilingual education had failed, voters decided to replace the bilingual system with language immersion.
After the measure passed, school districts were charged with instructing all students “overwhelmingly” in English for the first time.
Opponents of the law predicted disaster. Several school districts resisted. Notably, San Jose challenged the provision in federal court and won approval to keep its Spanish-speaking students in the same bilingual education classrooms they were in before the law passed.
While the rest of California has seen a large, demonstrable improvement in English proficiency, San Jose’s students have lagged behind, dragging down the state average.
By contrast, Los Angeles has made a strong effort in recent years to emphasize early English instruction. Its learners have responded with substantial improvements on standardized tests, and the district’s progress has been impressive.
It’s not as if Los Angeles spends more, has smaller classrooms or has a smaller percentage of children living in poverty. In fact, San Jose substantially beats the state average on those counts.
Indeed, a comparison of those two districts illustrates that any school can succeed.
Meanwhile, many Texas schools teach English as teachers do in San Jose. Unless specifically exempted by the State Board of Education, districts with more than 20 English learners in the same grade are required to offer bilingual education or another special language program. That’s why the state’s English learners remain markedly behind, even though its bilingual education program was launched 25 years ago.
Only in little towns such as Cactus – where 99.3 percent of elementary school students are Latino – are teachers finding success. Why? Because with a teaching staff that’s 95.1 percent white, the district doesn’t have the resources to utilize any program except English language immersion.
Consequently, the district’s test scores have outpaced the results of schools with similar demographics. And because of her own experience, Cactus Elementary principal Carla Tafoya is now a staunch proponent of immersion.
In a recent interview, the University of Texas’s Alba Ortiz declared that under bilingual education, it generally takes four to six years for Spanish-speaking students to become proficient in English. But in Texas, only 10 percent of English learners successfully acquire adequate English skills to be reclassified as proficient each year. A success rate that low is scandalous regardless of what method of instruction a school prefers.
Twenty-five years ago, Justice ruled to end segregation in Texas schools. Clearly, the bilingual experiment that ensued didn’t achieve that goal. Now he has a rare opportunity to set things right.
David White is an adjunct scholar at the Lexington Institute, a public policy research organization based in Arlington, Va.
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