Bilingual education may be both the best and the worst program ever devised by government, the best in principle but the worst as a practical matter.

Proponents say non-English-speaking students should initially be taught in their native tongues. That way, they won’t fall behind in math, science or social studies while learning English.

That seems to make sense. But the unfortunate reality is that many don’t learn English very quickly, in part because there is no pressing need. They remain in ‘temporary’ bilingual classes for years — and some still lack basic English skills when they graduate from high school.

The alternative is English immersion. It’s undeniably tougher on young people to be taught in a language they doesn’t fully understand. But proponents insist that forces them to learn English quickly — and once they do that, they catch up in math and the other classes.

The experience in California seems to prove them right. Immersion supporters say test scores have shot up 40 percent or more since bilingual programs were dismantled by a ballot measure in 1998.

That could be the start of a trend. Arizona voters recently approved a similar measure, petitions are being circulated to get the issue on the 2002 ballot in Colorado and a similar movement is developing in Massachusetts.

The Colorado initiative, according to Fox News, would require non-English-speaking students to be placed in one-year English immersion programs unless their parents specifically request bilingual education.

If parents get to choose, there is little doubt about what will happen. A Read Institute survey found 81 percent of Hispanics wanted their children to learn English first. That speaks volumes about the failure of bilingual education.

In fact, the Colorado ballot petition drive is being headed by a group of Hispanic activists.

Nobody is saying bilingualism is bad. To the contrary, it would help the United States compete in the international marketplace if all Americans could speak more than one language.

Nor should other cultures be played down. There are many cultures in this country, and each enriches American society.

Nor should people be expected to speak English only. They should speak whatever language they want.

But they need to be fluent in English, so they can better function in the workplace and as citizens.

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