Immigrant parents in New Jersey eager to have their children learn English are demanding the right to decide for themselves whether to put the youngsters in bilingual education programs that use native-language instruction or in English-speaking classrooms.

A 20-year-old state law, which some GOP legislators are trying to change, says education bureaucrats know best and should determine the placement of a child with limited English proficiency.

“It is only common sense that the parents should be the ones to make such an important decision, not some indifferent bureaucrat,” said GOP state Sen. Jack Ewing, chairman of the Senate Education Committee and Senate sponsor of legislation to give parents the right to choose the placement.

The measure gets its first airing tomorrow before the Senate Education Committee in Trenton, along with a bill to require bilingual education for any 20 students in three contiguous grades who speak a common language. The 48,000 foreign-born students in New Jersey speak more than 100 different languages.

“To force children into a program that very possibly will delay their acquisition of English and actually retard their academic and social development
– without their parents’ consent – is an alarming intrusion by the school system into families’ private lives,” Mr. Ewing said.

“We’ve got a great country that’s going down the drain with all the social services we’re doing,” he said. “We’ve got to stem some expenses. I don’t see why we have to cater to people who don’t speak our language. We’ve got to help them out for a while, but they need to learn to speak English just as fast as they can.”

“This is a step toward returning basic rights to parents,” said GOP Assemblywoman Marion Crecco, who sponsored the parental choice bill in the New Jersey General Assembly. “And one of the most obvious rights is deciding what type of education will be most beneficial to one’s child.”

Sponsors said their bills were prompted by a recent decision of the New Jersey state attorney general, who ruled that giving parents the right to withdraw their children from bilingual education classes violated current state law.

The attorney general also found 94 school districts were not in compliance with bilingual education requirements to provide native-language instruction if more than 20 children in a district speak a common language.

English as a second language, or ESL, is commonly used in New Jersey classrooms that have students who speak many different languages. ESL teachers are not bilingual and emphasis from the start is on English.

Bilingual programs are most popular among Hispanics. But at a February meeting of the Princeton Regional School Board, some Hispanic parents complained that the current system is discriminatory because their children are segregated in bilingual classes for much of the school day while students from other countries are only required to attend one ESL class daily.

These parents wanted their children to learn English as rapidly as possible, despite the academic hardships involved. They said bilingual education was slowing down their children’s comprehension of English since they often spend years in such classes.

Education Commissioner Leo Klagholz recommended to the state Board of Education that parents be allowed to choose whether their children receive bilingual or ESL education.

At a recent state Board of Education hearing, 50 bilingual teachers and others testified against this option, arguing that it was a veiled attempt to cut costs, the Record of Hackensack, N.J., reported.

“Why would we require parents unfamiliar with our educational system to make such a monumental decision when we as bilingual educators, as certified by the state of New Jersey, are trained to make those decisions?” Joseph Ramos, co-chairman of the New Jersey Bilingual Council, was quoted as saying at the hearing.

Six states – Massachusetts, New York, California, Texas, Colorado and Maryland – now require “some kind” of parental choice in bilingual education programs, according to U.S. English, an advocacy group that lobbies to make English the official language of government.

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