Bilingual Education Comes Under Scrutiny

Bilingual education in Albuquerque is heading for yet another confrontation, this time in federal court. A lawsuit filed by a group of Albuquerque Public School parents seeks to force the district to terminate its bilingual education program.

The parents are charging that the language program hurts students — most often Hispanic — by failing to adequately teach them English or by failing to recognize that they already speak English.

These charges are not new to APS. In 1995, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found APS guilty of similar complaints. As a result, APS was required to start a testing system to identify students who needed language assistance.

Unfortunately, there is evidence to indicate that this system is not working as it should. Of the 14 students included in the lawsuit, seven students placed in bilingual programs spoke only English. The other students party to the lawsuit are claiming they were denied an equal education because they did not receive enough English language instruction to succeed in their other courses.

Nationally there is growing opposition to bilingual education. Critics claim that of all the limited-English children, Spanish-speaking students provided with bilingual education are the ones with the highest dropout rates, the lowest academic test scores and the lowest admission to college. This is after more than 30 years of federally funded bilingual education programs.

Supporters of bilingual education counter that by teaching students in their native language while teaching them English keeps them on track academically. But because public education is not hard science, no clear-cut answer to the question of whether bilingual education helps or hurts students’ academic performance has been forthcoming. Reams of research exist to support both positions.

The parents who have filed the lawsuit are being joined by the Center for Equal Opportunity, a nonprofit interest group in Washington, D.C., campaigning around the country to end federally funded bilingual education programs in public schools.

A lawsuit backed by such an advocacy group is likely to cost APS scarce money and time. But, a lot is at stake in New Mexico because the statistics on Hispanic students are so bleak. They are at high risk of failing or dropping out of school. There is no statistical trend showing that anything being tried now
— bilingual education included — is turning those numbers around in any meaningful way.

Even though costly legal proceedings are rarely an efficient mechanism for setting public policy, this case could prove to be one of the exceptions. The fact-gathering, testimony under oath and adversarial nature of the court proceeding could force the compilation of valid and understandable data on just what APS is doing now in the bilingual education field and the educational effectiveness of the programs.

If bilingual education is helping children succeed in school, it should be protected and strengthened. If APS’ approach to bilingual education is driven more by a greed for federal funding than for meeting the needs of students, as alleged by the parents, then it is overdue for change. The lawsuit may provide the fact crucible in which to determine which way to go.

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