California may be more of a national aberration than a bellwether when it comes to bilingual education in the public schools.
As voters are poised to decide on a statewide ballot initiative that would eliminate bilingual education for 1.4 million limited English speakers,
districts in Florida and Texas are bolstering bilingual education programs.
Schools in New York and Illinois are revamping or holding the line on expansive bilingual classes that serve thousands of immigrant children.
Some cities are pushing for full bilingualism for all public schoolchildren
— for immigrants and native speakers alike.
“I honestly don’t see in any state the same type of animus toward bilingual education that we’ve seen in California,” said Jim Lyons,
director of the National Association of Bilingual Educators. “I don’t think it’s going to be replicated elsewhere in the same way that Proposition 187 and 209 have not been copied by any other state.”
Prop. 227 sponsor Ron Unz said his initiative, if successful, will inevitably affect the nation because most bilingual programs are in the Golden State.
He believes bilingual education has short-changed thousands of immigrant children in California by not teaching them enough English.
“I don’t know if the programs in other states are nearly as bad as they are in California,” Unz said.
California has more limited-English speakers than Illinois, Florida,
Texas and New York combined. It’s a statistic that some experts say explains why Californians are pushing for better results among non-native speakers.
Florida’s bilingual boom
Perla Tabares Hantman, a Miami school board member, recently spearheaded a successful effort to broaden Dade County’s bilingual education program.
With encouragement from the Chamber of Commerce, Hantman’s school board approved a plan in March that will expand foreign language classes for native English speakers and bilingual programs for limited English speakers.
“This is Miami,” Hantman said. “This is called the gateway to the Americas.”
Miami puts students with limited English skills into classes that are taught predominantly in English with some Spanish or Creole every day. Within three years, most of the students become fluent in English.
But Miami’s bilingual education program doesn’t end there. Students continue to study in their native languages through middle and high school. Even a native English speaker could choose to take a high school geography class in Spanish.
“For us, bilingual programs are available for all students and are not perceived as remedial programs,” said Lourdes Rovira, executive director of the district’s bilingual program. “We need to let the community know that just because you speak a language at home it does not translate into literacy — language needs to be studied continuously.”
Unlike California’s “transitional” bilingual programs that gradually shift students from native languages to English, Houston boasts a new program that promotes bilingualism for all students. It keeps more limited English speakers in bilingual classes from kindergarten through 12th grade, without moving them into English-only classes.
Houston educators reasoned that the city is close to Latin America and has an international job market that needs a work force that can function in two languages.
“What we found was that the kids going successfully through the
(transitional) bilingual program had lost all of their Spanish completely by the end of the fifth grade,” said Jose Hernandez, deputy superintendent of the public schools. “Cognitively they were behind their peers because they lost their first language.”
Support for bilingual education in Texas is mixed at the highest levels.
In a letter to constituents, Gov. George W. Bush endorses “English Plus” — a philosophy that emphasizes English literacy and an openness to bilingualism. He wrote, “Here in Texas, the Spanish language enhances and helps define our state’s history and tradition.”
House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, is a big critic of bilingual education. He introduced legislation — which shares the English for the Children title with Prop. 227 — that would end federal funds for bilingual classes and eliminate the Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Affairs.
Reform in the Windy City
While California’s bilingual program is under assault from the outside,
Chicago’s program came under scrutiny from within. District administrators recently decided to revamp the program by capping the number of years students can remain in bilingual classes.
Chicago’s new effort, for 71,000 limited speakers, looks a lot like the three-year proposal made by Education Secretary Richard Riley last month.
Riley criticized Prop. 227 for mandating one model and limiting special classes to only one year, but said a goal of learning English within three years is “reasonable.”
In Chicago, students can now stay in bilingual programs for three years,
with an optional fourth year. The district agreed to spend more on the programs and expand after-school tutoring and summer sessions to ensure that no student is left behind.
“While in California parents have been trying to eliminate bilingual education, here parents were complaining that we were limiting it to three years,” said Chicago public school spokeswoman Susan Vargas.
Vargas said administrators in Chicago were fed up with schools keeping children in bilingual programs in order to garner more state money for local programs and believe the program can be more effective in a shorter period of time.
New Yorkers, however, aren’t planning to change their bilingual programs,
which emphasize a “transitional” approach of moving students from native languages to English.
John Acompore, deputy director of the state program, said New York administrators are well aware of Prop. 227 but don’t expect the initiative to spread to the Empire State.
“We’re just trying to keep your virus in your state,” said Acompore.
Andrea Lampros covers education and Proposition 227. You can reach her at 925-943-8155 or P.O. Box 5088, Walnut Creek, CA 94596.