NEW JERSEY’S bilingual education law didn’t make sense when it was
enacted 20 years ago. It still doesn’t.
The law requires that many public-school pupils whose primary
language is not English must receive full-time instruction in that
language. The laudable goal was effective education for Spanish-speaking
The law was adopted in the first year of the governorship of
Brendan Byrne, when the Legislature was also in Democratic hands. An
eligibility cutoff was set. If 20 or more pupils in a school district
spoke the same foreign language, the law took effect for those children.
It didn’t matter what grades they were in, or which schools. If
there were 21 Japanese in a district, for instance, and seven of them
were kindergartners, seven were eighth-graders, and seven were high
school juniors, the law applied. In such a case, at least three
Japanese-speaking teachers would have to be hired, to teach very small
classes. That’s what the law said, although classes in the rest of the
district might average 30 children each.
Even if the district could afford it, qualified teachers were often
hard to find. In Hispanic neighborhoods, Spanish-speaking
elementary-grade teachers might be available, but throughout the state,
teachers fluent in Asian languages were scarce. Even rarer were
foreign-language-speaking teachers qualified in math or science.
Englewood Cliffs, for example, has a large number of Asian
students. The district has advertised over the years for a
Japanese-speaking teacher. It got just one response, from someone who
With new waves of immigration, communities that used to be almost
entirely English-speaking now accommodate sizable numbers of families
that speak Gujarati, Turkish, Polish, Macedonian, Bengali.
For many districts, compliance with the law is simply impossible.
The response of the school establishment has been “English as a Second
Language.” This teaching specialty, involving intensive instruction in
English for foreign-language students, didn’t exist a generation ago.
Now it is common.
It is common and by and large it works, preparing pupils for
mainstream, English-language instruction. Young children absorb American
English easily. Fluency is harder for older pupils, but lists of
suburban valedictorians regularly show high achievement by foreign-born
Last week, however, the state education commissioner released a
formal opinion by the attorney-general’s office on bilingual education.
The lawyers said that courses in English as a second language did
not fulfill districts bilingual responsibility. The lawyers analysis
is persuasive. The bilingual education law is clear and specific. It
doesn’t say that districts will provide such instruction if it can
reasonably be done, or if suitably trained teachers are available. The
law says flatly that it will be provided.
So what should be done? Amend the law. Make it flexible. Ah, but
that has been proposed before, leading to emotional debates about race
and ethnic bias. Opposition to change has been particularly sharp in the
Hispanic community. There a sizable bilingual education system has
developed, with well-paid teachers backed by politicians who see
mainstreaming as a threat to group cohesion.
Complicating the picture is that not every parent of a child with
limited English wants bilingual education. To the contrary. Many parents
recognize that to succeed in America, you must speak fluent English. The
sooner the language is mastered, the better.
In Palisades Park, where there is no bilingual program although 35
percent of the students are Korean, most of the Korean parents oppose
bilingual instruction, according to the schools superintendent. I can
In school districts that do have bilingual education, some parents
have tried to extricate children from the program. They have had to
fight to do it.
Three years ago the bilingual education law was amended to provide
an exit route. It isn’t simple. The child must pass an English
proficiency test and obtain the approval of the school staff.
If the staff says the child isn’t ready, the parent can appeal to
the education commissioner. But how many striving immigrants have the
knowledge, gumption, and time to do that?
Parents wanting mainstream education for their children would like
to put the burden of proof on the school instead of the family. They
have the support of the education commissioner, Leo Klagholz, but the
change will require action by the Legislature.
Assemblyman Rudy Garcia, a Hudson Democrat who presents himself as
a representative of the Latino community, said educators, not parents,
are best able to determine whether a child can transfer to an
English-only curriculum. That is a remarkable and, I think, politically
The time has come for thorough revision of the bilingual education
law. The attorney-general’s opinion provides a year for the task. That’s
James Ahearn is a contributing editor.