For some 30 years, the bilingual education lobby has successfully hoodwinked school districts into believing that the only way to help Hispanic youngsters learn English was to teach them in Spanish for four or five hours a day. Billions of dollars and millions of students later, some school systems are finally catching on that bilingual education has failed to deliver as promised.

Now, some of those school districts are trying to eliminate bilingual programs in favor of more effective methods. But state and federal bureaucrats aren’t eager to let schools teach Hispanic children in English, as officials in Orange County, Calif., recently discovered.

Orange Unified School District enrolls about 29,000 students each year, more than one quarter of whom come from non-English speaking homes. Although the school district teaches some 8,000 students from 40 language groups, only Hispanic children receive instruction in their native language. Last year, the school system offered classes in Spanish to 1,200 Hispanic elementary school students.

Nationally, native language instruction is almost exclusively a program for Hispanic children, and the majority of such kids are not immigrants but U.S.-born. In Orange County, as elsewhere, these Hispanic students often perform below grade level on achievement tests, and many drop out of school before graduating, while Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino and other non-English speakers manage to excel academically in English-language classes.

Frustrated at the poor performance of its Hispanic bilingual students, Orange Unified decided it wanted to try something new. Instead of teaching Hispanic students in grades K-3 primarily in Spanish, as is now done not only in Orange County but in many school districts throughout the country, district officials wanted to introduce English immediately. The district proposed that bilingual teaching assistants be available in each classroom to help students through the transition period but that instruction be provided almost entirely in English. In addition, the district said it would offer after-school tutoring to those students who needed extra help.

But to implement this proposal, the district needed a waiver from the state board of education, which requires Spanish language classes for Hispanics. State bilingual education officials strenuously objected, claiming that Hispanic youngsters would be irreparably harmed if they were taught English first. But Orange County persevered and sought approval from the board itself. After months of wrangling, the board voted narrowly to permit Orange County to experiment with English language instruction for one year beginning Aug. 1.

Orange County’s problems are not over yet, however. The U.S. Department of Education has already sent out threatening letters warning the district that its plan may violate federal civil rights laws, and local activists have filed discrimination complaints against the district. Nonetheless, if Orange County succeeds in breaking the bilingual monopoly in Hispanic education, other school districts in California and elsewhere will follow suit. Already, three smaller California districts have been granted waivers, and more are waiting in the wings.

The truth is bilingual education has failed Hispanic children miserably. A recent review of bilingual education research by the National Research Council confirms what many classroom teachers have known for years: Native-language instruction offers no special benefits to non-English speakers, nor do students perform better if they are taught by teachers who share their same ethnic background. What’s more, programs that emphasize cultural and ethnic differences in the classroom appear to be counterproductive, reinforcing stereotypes.

These findings, of course, cast doubt on the whole theory behind bilingual, bicultural education that federal and state bureaucrats have been pushing for decades. But what makes the NRC review most damaging is that the study authors are well-known advocates of bilingual education. Nonetheless, about the best the authors can say for the program is that they aren’t sure whether there will be long-term “advantages or disadvantages” to teaching children to read first in their native language rather than English, “given a very high-quality program of known effectiveness in both cases.”

With such faint praise coming from proponents of bilingual education, no wonder some school officials are eager to try something else. After forcing a 30-year bilingual stranglehold on the education of Hispanic children, federal and state officials should be willing to give school districts that chance.

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