Bilingual Education Under Fire

A national expert cited the push for English-only laws and against illegal immigrants.

A national expert warned Central Florida educators Thursday that bilingual
education is in danger because of movements pushing English-only laws and tougher stances on illegal immigration.

Such movements have fueled sentiment against bilingual education programs, said sociology professor Samuel Betances at Orange County’s first conference on bilingual education.

“It isn’t that they (the movements) are against bilingual education,” said Betances, who teaches at Northeastern Illinois University and specializes in race and ethnic relations. “They create a climate where the programs are not likely to be funded and are likely to be stigmatized.”

The professor’s audience at College Park Baptist Church included 350 bilingual educators from Orange, Osceola, Volusia and Seminole counties. Central Florida has about 14,000 children learning English as their second language. The two-day conference, which includes teacher training, ends today.

A bill introduced in Congress Feb. 20 would make English the country’s official language and eliminate federal support for bilingual education; two Florida proposals aim to remove public services for illegal aliens.

It’s the 10th year the federal measure has been proposed, and the National Association for Bilingual Education in Washington, D.C., predicts it won’t pass this time, either. Opponents think it’s an unnecessary expense to teach children in their native language, often citing a long history of immigrants who managed to learn before bilingual education classes took root in the 1960s.

In Florida, an Orlando Republican, state Sen. John Ostalkiewicz, is co-sponsoring a bill to prevent illegal immigrants from getting public services. Orlando political consultant Doug Guetzloe is leading a campaign to get a similar proposition on a statewide ballot.

Betances, 53, who advises Fortune 500 companies, universities and schools on race relations and bilingual issues, suggested strategies for local educators to use when lobbying for bilingual education.

Educators cannot defend bilingual education by saying it’s needed to preserve students’ native language and culture, Betances said.

Javier Melendez, Orange County’s senior director of multicultural services, agreed.

“As educators, we need to focus on language being a tool,” he said. “Basically, the kids need to understand what’s going on in the classroom. They need to understand the teachers. They need to be understood.”

Betances, who spent much of his early childhood in Puerto Rico, was forced to learn English only when he attended New York City schools. Betances said he would hear words he didn’t comprehend and would mimic other students’ responses but never truly understand.

Schools, however, also should not emphasize native languages so much that students don’t learn English, Betances said.

“I think anybody who says you can get along without learning English is a fool,” he said. “English has replaced German as the language of science. . . . English is the language that binds American citizens with American citizens.”

In Orange County, district officials say they’ve been struggling to find teachers as fluent in English as they are in Spanish so students are given the chance to learn both languages equally well.

GRAPHIC: BOX: Bilingual students
Public school students learning English as their second language:
Brevard 494
Lake 509
Orange 8,274
Osceola 2,001
Seminole 1,260
Volusia 1,447
Florida 134,333

Source: Florida Department of Education, 1993-94 statistics



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