This space has chronicled the Bushwick Parents Organization, a group of Latino parents in Brooklyn suing New York state — and so far, losing — because they want their kids educated in English. Now, from the West Coast comes the news of Los Angeles parents so frustrated in their efforts to regain control of their kids’ education that they yanked 90 kids out of school.
The eye of this storm is the public Ninth Street School, which serves children of workers in Los Angeles’ garment district. Many also attend an after school program at Las Familias del Pueblo, a community center in Los Angeles partly funded by big corporations. Most of the families speak Spanish at home.
The parents at Las Familias want more English for their children. In theory, they are entitled to that. Toni Marsnik, who coordinates an enormous bilingual ed program for the Board of Ed (some of 295,000 Los Angeles children in bilingual ed) told us that “any parents who decide they do not want their child to read in Spanish may go to the school and request English [language] instruction.”
The reality is different. Alice Callaghan, director at Las Familias, describes a familiar pattern: Parents are told they’ll lose their cultural identity if they reject Spanish-language education. Parents who persist face what Ms. Callaghan calls a “system of intimidation,” including, often, parents say, interrogation from up to four administrators or teachers.
The LA Board of Ed chooses to see this as a pedagogical issue. Dr. Marsnik says forcing a child to learn to write in English before he can write in Spanish “puts the child at a disadvantage.” The city’s posture is that kids who learn to read and write in their mother tongue over a period of about five years will be better students in both languages later. Dr. Marsnik says that a mountain of research supports this. We’d note there’s another mountain of research that notes that five years also takes a child right into puberty, the age when humans cease to be able to acquire the ability to speak a new language without an accent. Anyone in Los Angeles ever heard of immersion?
But by any theory, bilingual ed is failing in Los Angeles. The Board of Ed’s own testing program for Spanish-language kids, called Aprenda, shows that the typical third grader in a bilingual ed program in Los Angeles performed worse in reading than two-thirds of his peers across the nation — in Spanish (17 points below the national median). The classic bilingual ed complaint — that such programs render kids “illiterate in two languages” — certainly seems true in Los Angeles.
Why is this happening? One reason is that Lau v. Nichols, the original Supreme Court case that gave us bilingual ed, has been interpreted out of all proportion. Another is that bureaucracies self-perpetuate. In the Los Angeles school district, teachers certified to teach in Spanish get a bonus of up to $5,000 more a year. Those with certificates to teach English as a second language get $2,500 extra. This is known in Teachers Union-ese as the “bilingual differential.”
Meantime the kids spent a week out of school at Las Familias del Pueblo. On Wednesday, the parents decided to end their boycott after presenting the Ninth Street School’s principal with letters saying they wanted their children out of the bilingual classes by next fall. The administration appears ready for compromise. Maybe the parents should call the woman who wrote “It Takes a Village” to see if she’d help some poor working families prevail over a massive liberal bureaucracy.