After years of enjoying its status as sacred cow, bilingual education has become everybody’s favorite target.

There’s an ironic connection.

In the salad days of bilingual education, I worked as a substitute teacher on the Navajo reservation. When I expressed concerns about the effectiveness of bilingual education, I got hoots and insults.

Critics were considered know-nothing bigots.

So I shut up. And the champions of bilingual education reveled in their power to silence criticism.

Mary Mendoza of Tucson also saw flaws in the program that she thought gave Latino kids a separate, but unequal education. The 61-year-old native Spanish speaker took her concerns to Tucson Unified School District. And they hooted. "No matter what you tell the administration, they won’t listen," she said.

But she didn’t shut up. Now she and fellow Tucson resident Hector Ayala are preparing to launch a petition drive to replace bilingual education with one year of English immersion. Ron Unz, the big bucks benefactor of California’s successful anti-bilingual initiative, agreed to "give us legal advice and help us along the way," she says.

Now it’s fashionable to condemn bilingual education. And its critics are reveling in their power to silence its champions.

They get ammunition from mischaracterizing an Arizona Department of Education report. It found that in 1996-97, only 2.7 percent of Arizona’s limited-English proficiency students were ready to move into mainstream classes.

Mendoza’s group, English for the Children Arizona, cites that figure in its brochure, and says those kids were in bilingual education.

But that’s not true. The report lumped together all limited-English proficiency students – those in bilingual education, those in English as a second language and those in individualized programs. The dismal 2.7 percent figure is not just about kids in bilingual programs.

Bilingual education has become a catch-all phrase to describe public education’s failure to serve limited English students. "We are going to spend all our energy trying to eliminate bilingual education," Mendoza says. "Bilingual education has failed the Hispanic student."

But that’s not true, either. The report shows that students in bilingual programs score "consistently higher" on standardized tests than those in the other programs.

"A second trend is that the mean scores of students in bilingual programs increased through the grades," the report says.

Nor are all bilingual programs equal. George Mason University researchers Wayne P. Thomas and Virginia P. Collier list a variety of different types of bilingual programs, each with a different success rate. They found that students who went through the high quality ones scored better in high school than kids who’d been in other types of limited-English proficiency classes.

Gov. Jane Hull says, "Let’s find out which ones work." Those sensible sentiments are echoed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan, who plans to name a committee to look into how the state is serving limited English students.

If the champions of bilingual education had shown that kind of leadership years ago, they wouldn’t be losing public confidence now.

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