FELICITA PEREZ, who moved to Brooklyn from a Mexican village, is still learning English, but she understood enough of the news conference yesterday at City Hall to declare herself satisfied. New York’s political leaders finally seemed to be moving toward her view of bilingual education.
“No mas,” Mrs. Perez said yesterday, repeating the judgment she had rendered to the principal of her son’s school in Bushwick. Her son had done well in an English-speaking kindergarten, she said, but then was assigned to a bilingual program in first grade. When he was still stuck there in fourth grade, she told the principal she wanted no more of it.
Yesterday, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy stood in the Blue Room promising to give children like hers a way out of the bilingual ghetto. The occasion was the release of a report by a mayoral task force that included Mr. Levy.
The task force cited the grim results of bilingual classes, like the statistic that nearly a fifth of the students who enter in kindergarten are still in the program nine years later. “That’s a tragedy,” said Randy M.
Mastro, the former deputy mayor who was the chairman of the task force.
The task force did not contemplate ending bilingual education, as Californians and Arizonans have voted to do, because the classes are required by state law and a court decree. The report deals with more immediately practical goals, like ending the automatic assignment of students to bilingual classes if they score low on tests.
Instead, the task force proposed letting parents choose between bilingual classes and other options, including a new program to teach English more quickly. The report also recommends enforcing the requirement, now routinely waived, that students graduate from the bilingual program into mainstream classes within three years.
In theory, the reforms are promising — who could object to giving parents more choice? But it all depends on how they’re carried out by the Board of Education and state officials. The danger is that the bilingual establishment will again find ways to preserve itself.
The bilingual program was always supposed to be a temporary crutch for students learning English, but administrators and teachers had incentives to make it permanent. More students meant more money from the federal and state governments, and more specialized jobs for bilingual teachers, some of whom could not even speak English well themselves.
With those incentives, it wasn’t surprising that the program measured students’ English skills with a test that many native speakers of English could not pass. The results were more students assigned to bilingual classes, and more students trapped there permanently, even as evidence grew that the programs did not work.
IN theory, parents were always supposed to have the option of taking their children out of the program, but in practice many had a hard time. Fighting the bureaucracy could be especially difficult for parents not fluent in English, like Mrs. Perez.
“When I asked to take my son out of the program, the principal refused,” she recalled yesterday, speaking in Spanish. “The principal said, ‘Your son is Mexican. He must study in his own language. It’s his culture.’ ” Mrs. Perez said it took her a year, and an appeal to the district office, to get her son into mainstream classes.
Even with the proposed new guarantees for parental choice, some critics fear immigrants will still be intimidated into choosing bilingual programs. Ron Unz, the California businessman who crusaded against bilingual education in California and Arizona, said the only way to defeat New York’s bilingual establishment was to make English-only classes the default option for all children unless their parents requested a waiver.
Others, though, expect the proposed reforms to make a difference. “We’re very hopeful,” said Sister Kathy Maire, an organizer of East Brooklyn Congregations, a group that has worked with Mrs. Perez and other Latino parents in Bushwick. “We know from 12 years of fighting bilingual education that parents will exercise their option if they get a chance.”
Mrs. Perez was also optimistic, and she mentioned her own son’s progress now that he’s in a regular fifth-grade class. “He does all his homework and he’s very happy,” she said. “I am, too. I do not want him to face the problems I have faced here because I do not speak English. This is his country. He must learn English to have a good future.”