Is Bilingual Education Headed For Oblivion?

Californian's Proposition 227 would dismantle bilingual education.

As the saying goes: What starts on the West Coast eventually migrates to the East Coast. Given this trend, California will capture the spotlight June 2 when voters pass judgment on Proposition 227, an initiative that calls for dismantling bilingual education.

If Prop 227 wins – polls show it’s highly popular – bilingual education in California would go down the drain. Bilingual classes for America’s 2 million non-English speaking students might eventually meet a similar fate.

California’s vast bilingual education program is, by any definition, a flop. Approximately 430,000 students – or one-fourth of the state’s students – are enrolled in bilingual classes. Most never leave. Only 6 percent of kids enrolled in native-language classes graduate to English-speaking classes.

Even California’s Hispanic voters are fed up. Their children comprise the largest group in bilingual programs but they aren’t learning English.

California’s failures are not what Congress envisioned when it adopted the Bilingual Education Act in 1968. If you are going to succeed in America, Congress rightly reasoned, you must speak English. Otherwise, you’re headed for a low-skill, low-paying job and a dead-end future.

Critics say California’s program went haywire because it was poorly structured. Classes are taught in native tongues, not English. No time limits are placed on how long students can stay in native-language classes.

Some states even offer bonuses to teachers of bilingual education, reducing a teacher’s incentive to push students into English-speaking classes. And nobody quite knows how much bilingual education costs.

Some cities are setting time limits. Chicago now stipulates three years in bilingual classes; New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani has urged one year.

Fortunately, not every state uses the California model. North Carolina had about 25,000 students enrolled in 1996-97 in its English As A Second Language program. Unlike California’s program, classes are taught in English.

Teachers are not paid bonuses, but neither are time limits mandated. According to the N.C. Department of Instruction, the younger the child, the shorter the stay in ESL classes. Third- to fifth-graders generally remain from one to three years; high school students usually from three to five years.

The number of non-English speaking students in North Carolina is soaring. The overwhelming majority come from Latin America and Asia.

But California got there first. Its foreign-speaking population is enormous. All the more reason to restructure bilingual education and replace native-language classes with intensive English classes. Prop 227 will be a start.

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