Protests Greet Bill That Would Scrap Bilingual Education Across Oregon
A huge crowd turns up at a Senate hearing on a plan to move students into English immersion classes

Steven Carter
Portland Oregonian
Wednesday, April 4, 2001

SALEM---A bill eliminating bilingual education in Oregon schools is misguided and will hurt students who are struggling to learn English, the Senate Education Committee was told Tuesday.

"It is not the program that doesn't work; it's the personnel who are not qualified to teach the program," said Dovie Trevino, a professor of bilingual education at Western Oregon University. She said Oregon lacks a cadre of professionally trained bilingual teachers.

Senate Bill 919 would eliminate bilingual education and instead put non-English-speaking students in English immersion classes. The controversial bill drew an overflow audience to the committee hearing Tuesday and sparked a protest on the Capitol steps by Latinos who said getting rid of bilingual education would rob them of part of their culture.

Bilingual education is a way of teaching non-English speaking students academic subjects in their native language while they learn English, but it has come under fire in recent years in other states. Voters in California eliminated bilingual education in 1998, and Arizona voters did the same last fall.

The Oregon bill, sponsored by Sen. Charles Starr, R-Hillsboro, would dump bilingual education in favor of English immersion classes in which all subjects would be taught in English. A teacher could use a minimal amount of the child's native language when necessary to communicate with the student.

Oregon schools get extra money to educate about 46,000 students with limited English skills. Starr said he introduced the bill because he thinks that bilingual education has been ineffective and that students must know English to be successful in American society.

"Our current system is failing these students miserably and costing taxpayers millions of dollars," he said.

Starr said the experience in California since it eliminated bilingual education supports his approach. Test scores for English-limited students have risen across the board, not only in English but also other subjects, he said.

"When we look at the California scores, not only did the students keep up, they prospered," Starr said.

But others at the hearing argued that the California test score gains were due to other factors, not elimination of bilingual education. They pointed out that California has poured billions of dollars into reducing class size and put greater emphasis in the past few years on teaching children to read at an early age.

Henry Wiens, director of special services for the Hillsboro School District, said test scores for all students in California have risen but the gap between English and non-English speakers remains as wide as it has ever been.

Wiens said his district, which has a high percentage of Latino students, has found that bilingual education is one of the most effective ways to teach non-English-speaking students while they learn English.

If students learn to read in their native language, it makes it easier for them to learn English, Wiens said. "I know this works. I've seen it work," he said.

Several witnesses said they felt the bill was an attack on Latinos in Oregon.

"I am outraged," said Martha Calderon-Hernandez. "Our immigrant brothers and sisters are being attacked again."

Starr said he realized his bill was controversial but he wanted to have a debate about the best way to teach non-English-speaking students. He said he was not sure if he could muster the votes to move the bill out of the education committee.

At least two of the seven committee members said they were opposed to the bill; others showed skepticism during Tuesday's hearing.

You can reach Steven Carter at 503-221-8521 or by e-mail at [email protected]