Protesters Crowd Hearing on Revising Bilingual Education

TRENTON—Advocates for immigrant children jammed a hearing Wednesday to protest proposed regulations that they said would dismantle bilingual education in New Jersey by undermining the 1975 law that allows non-English-speaking students to be taught in their native language.

The State Department of Education wants to require parental consent before a child could receive bilingual education, a change that advocates say would discourage immigrant parents from enrolling their children in such programs. The state also wants to grant waivers to districts where the sheer number of languages spoken, the size of the district, or other factors make bilingual classes difficult to offer.

State officials said parents have a right to decide how their children are educated. But critics, including teachers and parents, said the changes would mean fewer students in bilingual classes, holding them back academically, increasing the dropout rates, and driving up costs for remedial education.

“In the long run, these children will consider themselves failures,” said Assemblyman Rudy Garcia, D-Union City, at a news conference before the hearing. “They will drop out and feel they are dumb and feel they don’t fit in, and their lives are destroyed.”

Fred Carrigg, executive director of academic programs in Union City schools, called the proposed changes “extremely serious because they single out the linguistic-minority community for special treatment.

“That’s not what America is all about,” said Carrigg, whose district enrolls 8,360 students with 75 percent from a non-English-speaking background.

About 47,000 students around the state are enrolled in bilingual or English -as-a-second-language programs in public schools.

An estimated 200 people crowded into two hearing rooms to lend support to about 55 witnesses who signed up to address the state Board of Education, which must approve the proposed regulatory changes. The unexpectedly large audience prompted state education officials to summon a state trooper to stand guard. Garcia condemned the presence of the guard, accusing officials of panicking. An education official defended the move, saying the guard was there for safety reasons.

Under the Bilingual Education Act of 1975 children are entitled to instruction in their native language. Garcia said the changes would violate the intent of that law, and that he would sue if the board made the changes without seeking accompanying legislation.

Deputy Education Commissioner Richard DiPatri defended the proposal requiring a parent’s permission, saying “parents should have a right to say what is in their child’s best interest and in most cases that’s acceptable…. We didn’t anticipate this reaction.”

Under current rules, the teacher and administrator at the student’s school decide whether a student needs bilingual education and parents are informed.

Critics testified that non-English-speaking parents would be confused by English-language consent forms, and said parents already are allowed to decline bilingual education under the code.

They said the changes were part of a plan to cut state outlays for bilingual education by holding down enrollment, a move that would help implement Governor Whitman’s promised 30 percent income-tax reduction..

“What happens if a parent is illiterate in English and their native language or they speak an exotic language? ” said Carla D’Acierno, an English-as-a-second-language teacher in Union City, who represented the North Jersey Bilingual-ESL Council. “Who will sit down with the parent and educate them to make an informed decision? ” Luz Mayi, a member of the Jersey City Bilingual Advisory Board, said that when she immigrated from the Dominican Republic in 1978, her son’s principal discouraged her from enrolling him in bilingual kindergarten. He had to repeat the grade, this time after she insisted on a bilingual class, and went on to four years of instruction in Spanish, Mayi testified.

“It was a blessing…. I was able to communicate with the teacher and with my son,” said Mayi, whose son now studies psychology at Rutgers. “I want a guarantee that other parents won’t be misled as I was. A full year of a child’s life was lost because of the opinion of an administrator.”

Another amendment would give districts the option of applying for a waiver to pursue alternative approaches to bilingual classes.

“They could do almost anything in lieu of bilingual education,” said Garcia, a Cuban-born immigrant who studied in a bilingual program.

“Historically, some suburban districts with clout have gotten waivers and were allowed to not even provide ESL.”

Currently, any district with 20 or more students speaking the same foreign language must offer bilingual programs and districts with 10 to 19 students must provide English as a second language programs.

DiPatri said current code allows for alternative programs and the change merely brings the rule into conformity with federal requirements for waivers.

More than 100 languages and dialects are spoken in New Jersey, including the Southeast Asian Hmong language and Indian dialects including Malayalam and Gujarati, said Anna Mistral, an administrator in Jersey City schools who testified at the hearing.

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