150 years on bilingual education pendulum

In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously determined that placing students who couldn’t speak English in regular classrooms without some language help was a violation of their civil rights.

That decision gave bilingual education a national stamp of approval.

Subsequent court decisions concluded that bilingual education was only one of many acceptable ways to provide special assistance to non-English speakers, but teaching kids in their native language became a mainstay of public education.

While advocates of bilingual education 25 years ago fought to give non-English speakers equal academic footing in public schools, the program is now under attack for the same reason.

“It’s not about education, it’s about money,” said Redwood City resident Fernando Vega, who believes Hispanic children aren’t learning English in California public schools.

“We have failed to provide an education to those kids. All I ask is they level the field and give us a fair education.”

Politically conservative Orange County has led the affront on bilingual education.

The 29,000-student district has sought a waiver from using bilingual education in their schools. A group of parents and civil rights groups challenged the decision in court and await trial.

This isn’t the first time in U.S. history that bilingual education has gone through a full cycle of support and strong opposition.

For the last 150 years or so, the political and social environment has tended to have a strong impact on the languages allowed by law.

In the mid-1800s, for example, Pennsylvania law required school instruction in both English and German. Several other states taught bilingual education in French, German and Spanish.

During that time, the United States had an open-door immigration policy that brought 15.4 million new residents.

Also in the mid-1800s, California was officially a bilingual state — a status that lasted for 30 years. The state’s first constitutional proceedings were conducted in both Spanish and English.

During the 1880s, in the aftermath of the Civil War, the Jim Crow laws imposed English literacy requirements for voting.

About 40 years later, during World War I, 20 Midwestern states barred schools from teaching German. In 1921, Nebraska made English the official language of the state.

The most recent attack on bilingual education in California follows closely on the heels of Proposition 187, a measure to eliminate public benefits to illegal immigrants; and Proposition 209, which sought to end affirmative action.

In addition, the English-only movement has been a consistent election-year issue in recent years.

Groups such as English First or U.S. English have spent the last two decades fighting to make English the official language of the country. English-only supporters believe all government or public business, including public education, should be conducted in English.

In 1981, the English Language Amendment was introduced in Congress, but has never reached a vote.

At least one politician who supports official English legislation has seen fit to recognize his bilingual constituency.

As of last week, House Speaker Newt Gingrich is distributing his official words and recorded actions in Spanish.

His press releases are also being translated so he can “reach out” to citizens who are native Spanish speakers “to show the good work being done in Congress,” spokeswoman Christina Martin said.

Gingrich continues to be an “adamant supporter” of official English, but he has “voluntarily” decided to send out translations into Spanish, Martin said.

“He still believes that all government documents should be done in English first,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Comments are closed.