At first we thought we might be hallucinating. The same U.S. Education Department that has been threatening the Denver school district for its attempts to limit bilingual instruction to no more than three years per student has now intervened in a California referendum over bilingual education by advocating – yes, you guessed it – that such programs be limited to no more than three years. California’s Proposition 227 would effectively end bilingual education in the state. The polls show that it is very likely to pass (60 percent in favor, with the election only five weeks away); if it passes in California, it is likely to almost anywhere.
The surprise is not that Education Secretary Richard Riley is campaigning against the measure. That is predictable – as it was also predictable that Riley would offer an alternative reform that tries to split the difference between the status quo and outright termination of it. Splitting the difference is the strategy the administration attempted in 1996, when it opposed California’s landmark Prop 209, which ended racial, ethnic and gender preferences in state and local government. Back then, the president promised to protect federal affirmative action programs while ”mending” them. Rather than end bilingual
education, Riley this week said that bilingual programs should be mended by limiting them to three years, with that limitation being a goal, not a requirement. Funny, that’s exactly what Denver proposed last year. Specifically, Denver resolved to move Spanish-speaking students into ”sheltered English” or mainstream classes in three years or less, but to force no one into regular classes who wasn’t ready. Those who lagged behind schedule would receive individualized attention to ensure they didn’t languish for several more years in bilingual instruction and fall yet further behind their English-speaking classmates. And what did Riley’s Education Department have to say about Denver’s proposal? Its Office of Civil Rights insisted the reform would violate students’ civil rights and urged the Justice Department to sue the district. And the civil rights office has never retreated from its hard-line position. To be sure, other issues are in dispute besides the length of stay in the bilingual program. Federal and district officials also disagree over staffing, how much authority to give parents in selecting the proper program for their child and what testing procedures are used to identify children with limited command of English. Yet there is no doubt the district’s goal of a three-year limit for bilingual instruction also alarmed the Office of Civil Rights – and now the very same department is urging Californians to adopt a virtually identical reform. Perhaps when Riley is finished campaigning against Prop 227 he can make another trip – this time to Denver. It is time he apologized for the way his bureaucrats have been browbeating a school district attempting to implement precisely the kind of moderate reform that the administration is now advocating in California.