ALBUQUERQUE–Eight weeks before Californians vote on a controversial initiative to abolish bilingual education, political battles over how to teach students who do not speak English are intensifying across the West.
As the children of immigrants pour into school systems not equipped to handle their numbers or needs, the fight over how bilingual education is done–or whether it is done at all–is pitting Latinos against Latinos,
Anglos against Latinos, communities against school boards and school boards against federal authorities.
Nowhere is that more evident than in Albuquerque and Denver, which have a combined 40,000 students in bilingual programs.
Both cities have been blasted by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for failing to adequately fund, staff and evaluate bilingual education. And both have been disrupted by student walkouts in protest of their troubled programs.
But the dissatisfaction in these cities over bilingual education–originally intended to prevent students from falling behind in academic subjects taught in English while they were learning the language–has taken opposite forms.
A lawsuit recently was filed in federal court against Albuquerque Public Schools seeking to eliminate native-language instruction altogether . Last week in Denver, a national Latino group that supports bilingual education started funding a grass-roots effort to overhaul that city’s program.
“Children are the losers when ideologies and politics superimpose themselves on educational issues, but whether or not we can stop that from happening is a tough question,” said Ofelia Miramontes, an associate professor of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder and an expert on bilingual programs.
“The bottom line is that it takes time for kids to become proficient in English,” she said. “Clearly, programs that are not adequately funded and shift from year to year in political winds do not add up to academic proficiency.”
A year ago, the Education Department ruled that Denver Public Schools–which has a 48% Latino student population and supports the general concept of bilingual education–had failed to adequately teach those with limited English skills.
The district then revamped its program so children would be immersed in English-only courses within three years, instead of remaining in the bilingual program indefinitely.
But federal authorities–and a grass-roots parents group called Padres Unidos (United Fathers)–would rather have the district develop ways to measure when children are ready to leave native-language instruction. The office of civil rights recently referred the matter to the Justice Department,
which could decide to cut off $30 million a year in funding for the district.
In the meantime, Padres Unidos has started receiving money and technical support from the National Council of La Raza.
Its president, Raul Yzaguirre, is an advocate of bilingual education and is arguably the most influential Latino activist in Washington.
“Denver’s Hispanic community has been extraordinarily patient with the school system that has never been fully responsive to the needs of the community’s children,” Yzaguirre said. “By making this commitment in Denver, we recognize that everyone has a stake in improving the educational status of Latino children; it is not just up to the public school system.”
Added Padres Unidos spokesman Pierre Jimenez: “Three years is just not enough time to acquire high levels of proficiency. We believe a child can become literate faster in a bilingual education approach lasting five to seven years, provided it is properly funded and implemented–which has never happened in Denver.”
Denver Public Schools Supt. Irv Moscowitz said the opposition to his modified program is “neurotic.”
“We’re saying three years might be the limit, but a teacher can defend the position to keep a kid in bilingual education longer if needed,”
he said. “There seems to be a deliberate misinterpretation of our policy going on. That is a shame because it’s over the heads of our kids and driven by adult values and issues.”
In Albuquerque, Lizet Aranda, a 16-year-old junior at Highland High School,
wishes all of her bilingual education instructors were fluent in Spanish.
When one of them kept calling the tentacles of a dissected squid testiculos,
or testicles, she had to laugh out loud.
“We spent half the period arguing about it,” Lizet recalled.
“Finally, somebody opened the textbook and showed her the right word:
Lizet is among 14 plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed against Albuquerque Public Schools, calling for an end to bilingual education, and alleging inadequate bilingual instruction, discrimination against Latino students on the basis of national origin and the labeling of non-Latino students as Latino to get more state funding.
The plaintiffs are being funded by the Center for Equal Opportunity,
a nonprofit public policy organization in Washington led by Linda Chavez,
who believes native-language instruction has been a failure everywhere it has been tried.
Because of that position, the litigants are being called vendidos, or sellouts, by other Latinos–some of them former friends–who regard the lawsuit as an attack on their ethnic heritage.
“We would have worked with ideologues from the left had they stepped forward to help us,” said Vivian Doak, whose sons, 9-year-old Matthew and 12-year-old George, are plaintiffs in the case.
A local grass-roots group that once counted Doak as a valuable member,
New Mexico Vecinos United, has launched a letter-writing campaign to discredit the lawsuit, its intent and its backers.
Deciding to take that action was not easy. Andres Valdez, a spokesman for Vecinos United (United Neighbors), fought side by side with Doak in earlier battles against alleged police brutality and unfair utility rates in some of Albuquerque’s poorest neighborhoods.
“But we think they are promoting a racist effort to destroy our language and culture,” Valdez said. “We will not stand for that.”
Doak, who years ago agreed to allow her sons to be part of the program,
believes it is too late to turn back. Her younger son spends an hour each day alone and unsupervised in his Mountain View Elementary School library because he opted out of bilingual programs that after three years extended his command of Spanish to this: Buenos dias. Buenas tardes. Senora.
The freckle-faced Anglo boy and his parents insist he should never have been placed in the bilingual program. Their lawsuit alleges the district illegally pads its bilingual education program with non-Latinos to get more state funding.
School officials deny that. But they conceded it may have been a mistake to have the Doak brothers in the bilingual program that serves an impoverished,
mostly Latino district. They also acknowledged the district was not prepared to accommodate a student who wanted out of the program.
A few weeks ago, Doak’s older boy was punched in the eye after his teacher initiated a classroom discussion about his lawsuit. The talk became contentious when another student took exception to his criticism of a “cultural enrichment” lesson that featured class time set aside to make tacos.
“Making tacos didn’t seem to have anything to do with learning Spanish,
especially since the teacher talked about tacos in English,” George said. “But the kid who hit me loved tacos and said I was trying to ruin his fun.”
The Doaks are seeking a restraining order that would ban all school discussions about the suit on grounds such debates could jeopardize their safety.
Virginia Duran Ginn, supervisor of Albuquerque Public Schools’ bilingual programs, conceded “there are bound to be human errors. . . . We do need lots of help in recruiting qualified bilingual teachers and getting more funding for resources. But I will continue to fight for bilingual education because it makes common sense. Should children be taught in a language they understand, or a language they don’t understand?”
“But my teachers don’t even know how to speak Spanish,” Lizet said. “It’s sad that people are focused on the politics of this situation.
They should be helping us with reading, writing and mathematics.”