WASHINGTON — House Majority Whip Tom DeLay plans to introduce legislation Wednesday that would end federal support of bilingual education, leaving it up to the states to decide whether to fund such programs.
The bill, which calls for the elimination of the Department of Education’s Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs, would end federal funding for about 750 bilingual programs nationwide that allow the teaching of immigrant children in their native language until they learn English.
Many of those programs were created under consent decrees that encouraged the establishment of bilingual programs in return for federal funding. DeLay’s bill would void the consent decrees, leaving the states free to decide for themselves whether they want to continue funding bilingual programs without the benefit of federal dollars.
DeLay aides said the measure, called the English for Children Act, would save the government an estimated $215 million a year if approved by the House and Senate.
DeLay spokesman John Phillippe said his boss had decided to offer his bill because of his long-standing belief “that when you have bilingual education programs, you are telling (immigrant children) that they don’t need to learn English to get by.”
“He believes that this is a shackle the federal government is putting on these kids . . . In the long run, it’s a huge disadvantage to them,”
DeLay, R-Texas, was on the verge last month of introducing his legislation,
but pulled back at the last minute after a number of House members raised concerns about it. The bill is modeled after California’s Proposition 227,
the controversial June initiative in which Californians will vote on whether to continue the state’s bilingual programs.
Some members had urged Delay to await the outcome of Proposition 227 before introducing national legislation. But DeLay decided to move ahead in the wake of polls and studies indicating that an increasing number of U.S. voters, including many Hispanics, believe that bilingual education programs have failed to live up to their promise of making it easier for children to learn English.
“I think there’s an understanding out there that these programs have turned out to be failures, and immigrant kids are not going to achieve the American dream if they don’t learn to speak English,” said DeLay policy director Tony Rudy.
Delia Pompa, director of the national Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs, said that despite the discontent in some parts of the country with bilingual education, many states have a strong commitment to continuing their programs with or without federal assistance. But she said losing the federal dollars could hurt some states like Texas, where the federal dollars have helped with start-up programs in poor school districts where seed money was not available.
Pompa, the former director of bilingual education in Houston, cited the city as one area where some programs never would have gotten started without federal assistance. Texas currently receives about $9.5 million in federal funding to help fund 49 bilingual programs. That accounts for about 6 percent of the $199 billion available this year for bilingual education.
Pompa said DeLay’s bill “would take away a very good support system for English” not only in Texas, but across the country.
“It’s interesting that he calls this the English for Children Act.
His bill would effectively wipe out a large means of support for providing English education,” she said.
She also took issue with DeLay’s assertion that his bill is designed to end the federal mandate for bilingual education by voiding the consent decrees that still exist with many local districts.
“We don’t mandate bilingual education in any way,” she insisted.
“We have always left the choice up to the (school) districts. They apply to us voluntarily . . . because they want the money and want the programs.
These are discretionary grants.”
It’s unclear at the moment how much support DeLay’s measure will attract in the House. The level of support could depend on the outcome of the vote in June on the emotional issue of Proposition 227. But regardless of the outcome in that vote, the issue could still prove too hot for Republicans to embrace.
In California, for example, many Republicans who want to do away with bilingual education have refused to publicly endorse Proposition 227 out of concern that it could prove to be too ethnically divisive.
Still, like many Americans, a growing number of members are alarmed by reports showing that bilingual education in some areas of the country is failing to live up to its promise.
Texas Reps. Gene Green, D-Houston, and Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio,
have been supportive of bilingual education programs. But they have called for improvements to be made in existing programs.
Green, however, said he would oppose DeLay’s effort to eliminate federal support for bilingual programs. “We spend $111 million in Texas on bilingual education and the federal portion for Texas is only ($9.5 million).
But I would not want the federal government not to be a participant in some type of language transitional program,” Green said.
“Not having bilingual education, or English as a second language programs, is like putting our heads in the sand. We want people to learn English and that’s what these programs are for,” Green said.
Bonilla said in a statement that he had not seen DeLay’s bill, and would not comment. But he said he agrees with DeLay that bilingual education “should not be a permanent program.”
“The common goal is to get all kids in this country speaking English as soon as possible so they can learn in English. In order to achieve this goal, bilingual education needs to be a phased-out process,” Bonilla said. “We can not continue to dedicate our precious resources to teaching in different languages.”