EDITOR’S NOTE: The author and U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Littleton,
co-sponsored the failed effort to get an English immersion proposal on the ballot in Colorado in 2000.

President Bush is making a big play for Hispanics, even at the risk of offending some members of his conservative base. So far, the president has signaled that he may be open to a limited or ‘earned’ amnesty for some illegal aliens, infuriating many on the right. And two weeks ago, the Justice Department filed a brief supporting a racial preference program that benefited a Hispanic government contractor in a Colorado case before the U.S. Supreme Court, which disappointed many conservatives, including me. But the president may be missing the boat on the one issue that could not only win him added support and respect within some segments of the Hispanic community and but would be widely praised by conservatives as well. It’s time President Bush jumps aboard and supports English immersion for Hispanic immigrant children.

I know this sounds counterintuitive. The reason some Hispanic children still aren’t learning English in many states – including Texas, New York and Illinois – is that a powerful, Hispanic-led bilingual education lobby blocks any attempt to include more English instruction in the curriculum for Hispanic immigrants. But Hispanic parents have started to revolt, first in California, then Arizona, and now in Colorado and Massachusetts,
sponsoring statewide ballot initiatives to replace failed bilingual programs with English immersion programs.

Unfortunately, neither President Bush nor other leaders in the Republican Party have been willing take the side of the parents against the bilingual lobby, who are out to protect their jobs, not help children. In California and Arizona, which passed the initiatives in 1998 and 2000, most Republican elected officials opposed the measures, which nonetheless won overwhelming support from voters. I predict the same will happen in Colorado and Massachusetts next year.

Meanwhile, the evidence continues to mount that English immersion works.
This week, California released the results of its statewide standardized tests. For the third year in a row, English learners – the term the state now uses to describe children who enter school with limited proficiency in English – improved their scores at a higher rate than their peers.
Statewide, second-grade English learners improved reading and math scores 3 points each and language scores by 2 points over last year. That amouted to a 63 percent increase in reading and math scores since English immersion was introduced in 1998, and a 58 percent increase in language scores.

So what are Republicans afraid of? As then-Gov. Bush told me a few years ago at a private meeting in Austin, Texas, he didn’t want to be tarred with the ‘English-only’ label. He is for ‘English-plus,’ he said, adopting the phrase some bilingual education advocates coined a few years ago. The problem is that those same bilingual proponents insist on teaching Hispanic youngsters primarily in Spanish, which makes the phrase meaningless propaganda.

President Bush won’t necessarily hear it from Hispanic leaders, but Hispanic parents – especially immigrants – want their children to learn English as quickly as possible. When the Center for Equal Opportunity, of which I am president, polled Hispanic parents on this issue a few years ago – 83 percent of whom spoke Spanish as their primary language – only 12 percent favored having their children taught in Spanish if it meant less time learning English. A whopping 81 percent wanted their children to be taught entirely in English.

The president ought to listen to these Hispanics, not the National Association for Bilingual Education, which has a vested interest in preserving Spanish-language programs to boost its organization’s coffers.

The president could begin by instructing his Department of Education to assist local school districts in implementing English-immersion programs immediately. There is a dearth of material available on how to establish an effective instructional program, and the Education Department could help fill the gap.

Most importantly, he could use the pulpit to promote teaching English by talking about it every time he discusses education. Why, he might even consider devoting one of his weekly radio addresses to the topic. And this is one radio address even conservatives could agree he ought to deliver in Spanish, too.

Former Denverite Linda Chavez is president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington-based think tank, and was director of public liaison in the Reagan administration. CEO has published a guide on English immersion programs, ‘The ABC’s of English Immersion,’ which is available on their website, www.ceousa.org

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