New Mexicans are deeply split along ethnic and political lines over the issue of bilingual education, with Hispanics far more likely to support the programs than Anglos, according to a Journal poll.
The survey of 402 New Mexicans also suggests that Republicans, older residents and those in higher income groups are more likely to oppose bilingual education.
On the whole, 53 percent of those surveyed said they support bilingual programs, with 41 percent opposed and 6 percent undecided.
However, 75 percent of Hispanics back bilingual education, compared with 42 percent of Anglo respondents.
The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
“What we have here is an issue that divides the community” along almost every demographic group, including political party, ethnicity and age, said Brian Sanderoff, president of Albuquerque-based Research and Polling Inc., which conducted the survey from Sept. 5-10.
Bilingual education programs teach students who are not familiar with English some subjects in their native language while they learn English.
Critics of the programs say all students should be taught only in English.
Sanderoff said the debate is one that polarizes New Mexicans in several categories. For example:
* Support for bilingual programs is highest among younger voters. Eighty-three percent of those 18 to 34 years old support bilingual education, compared with 36 percent among those 65 and older.
* Fifty-five percent of Republicans oppose the programs, while 62 percent of Democrats support them.
* Opposition to bilingual education increases with income. In households earning less than $20,000 a year, 64 percent back the bilingual approach, compared with 49 percent among those earning more than $40,000.
* Support for bilingual education is higher in urban areas of the state, including Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
* Those with children living at home are more likely to back the programs.
Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Brad Allison said he isn’t shocked by the level of disagreement.
“I think bilingual education has become a political issue and not an educational issue,” he said.
Allison said disagreements are philosophical — not based on how well the programs are being taught.
Sanderoff agrees. Hispanics, he said, view attacks on bilingual education as threatening their culture, while Anglos say the programs come at the cost of teaching students English.
“Both of those are gut issues,” he said.
Linda Chavez, head of a national nonprofit group funding a lawsuit that would eliminate bilingual education within Albuquerque Public Schools, said results of the poll do not surprise her.
“It’s a political reaction,” she said. “If you were to poll on the subject of immigration, you would see the same sort of divisions.”
Chavez also said she is not troubled that respondents are — on the whole — supportive of bilingual programs.
She said her organization, the Center for Equal Opportunity, has conducted polls nationally where Hispanics are critical of bilingual programs. The key, she said, is in the wording of the poll.
The Journal poll question read:
“Supporters of bilingual education say this program helps students who are unfamiliar with English by teaching some subjects in their native language while they are learning English. Opponents say the program doesn’t work because students do not learn to speak English well enough while in school. Do you support or oppose bilingual education programs in public schools?”
Chavez said opposition is higher when respondents are given more information on what she describes as “the failure of bilingual education.”
For instance, she said, Hispanics are less likely to support bilingual programs if a poll asks them whether spending class time being taught in English, or in another language, is more important.
“When (Hispanics) find out that many are not learning English, that’s when their support for bilingual education programs falls,” she said.
However, the head of APS’ bilingual programs said the poll results show that those who are most familiar with bilingual programs — namely Hispanics, the poor and the young — are the most supportive of them.
Virginia Duran-Ginn said opponents, who include Anglos, higher income levels and older people, are less likely to have personal experience with the programs.
She also said many of those opponents fear the programs because they have the potential of empowering poor, immigrant populations.
“Bilingual programs and other initiatives give access to social and economic progress,” she said. “All of those vehicles are going to be a threat to those in power.”