Judged by the heat of the rhetoric, the issue might be sex education or prayer in the public schools. “Without it,” argues California education official Robert Cervantes, “kids won’t ever have the opportunity to buy into the system.” Not so, retorts Albert Shanker, president of the United Federation of Teachers: “It is bad for the child. It will do harm to the nation.” What they are arguing about is bilingual education. One of the longest-running and prickliest of academic controversies, it became hotter last summer when the U.S. Department of Education proposed new regulations that would require bilingual teaching in all schools that have a sizable number of non-English-speaking students.


The task of educating youngsters for whom English is at best a second language is enormous. There are now an estimated 3.6 million school-age children in the United States whose English is too limited to cope with a regular school curriculum. More than 70 per cent are Spanish-speaking, while the next largest groups–including Koreans, Vietnamese, Cambodians-are Asian. In all, about 70 languages, from Arabic to Hebrew, are part of bilingual programs throughout the country. Federal spending, which began after the passage of the Bilingual Education Act in 1968, reached $167 million this year. If the influx of students is any barometer, costs can only go up. In Chicago alone, the number of students requiring bilingual instruction is rising 14 to 17 per cent annually.


There is also an acute shortage of qualified teachers. Chicago currently lacks 160 instructors, Los Angeles 2,400. Not only must bilingual teachers be proficient in two languages; they must be competent in the core courses such as mathematics and history. Despite these special requirements, most are paid no better than their singlelanguage colleagues.


Bilingualism has always been more than an educational issue. It is a political and a cultural problem, rooted in U.S. history. Americans are proud of their cultural diversity, but a common thread is vital, and the ubiquity of English has always played a role in weaving the nation together. “Any man who comes here,” wrote Theodore Roosevelt in 1917, “. .. must adopt the institutions of the United States, and therefore he must adopt the language which is now the native tongue of our people.”


Barriers: Some argue that if their forebears assimilated without special help, why shouldn’t others? Says Rhode Island state representative John Assalone, whose Italian immigrant father was thrown down the steps of a New York City school for not speaking English: “Immigrants should learn English like my father did, without burdening the American taxpayer to support expensive and failing programs.” Lita Taracido, president and general counsel of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., disagrees: “Common sense and logic tell you that a child can’t be expected to learn in a class where he doesn’t understand what is being said.”


The nation is committed to providing an equal opportunity to learn. A unanimous Supreme Court decision in 1974 affirmed that this right could not be abridged by language barriers when it ruled that 1,800 Chinese-speaking children in San Francisco were denied a realistic chance at education because they were required to attend classes exclusively in English.


But the Court did not require bilingual classes. It left the choice of remedies to the individual school systems. Some, like the one in Fairfax County, Va., an affluent area that borders Washington, D.C., prefer English-as-second-language (ESL) programs, in which students are initially immersed in an intensive English course. As their English improves, they move into some regular classes, and many are in the mainstream after two years.


Far more schools, however, offer one of two bilingual programs. In the “transitional” approach, students use their native language until their English is strong enough for them to shift into regular classes. In “maintenance” programs, students learn bilingually even after they have mastered English. Dubbed “affirmative ethnicity” by one critic, maintenance programs are by far the most controversial device for overcoming language barriers. Some opponents see maintenance as an affront to the melting-pot theory of American society. Others fear its emphasis on cultural pride can foster a separatist mentality. Still others simply believe it prevents a student from becoming truly proficient in either language.


|Would You Listen?’ But there is evidence that the bilingual approach can be effective. At New York’s PS 25, just five blocks from the spot where President Carter, and later Ronald Reagan, stood to decry the devastation of the South Bronx, elementary-school youngsters are thriving in both Spanish and English–perhaps because principal Louis A. Cartagena never allows them to use both languages in the same class. “If I were to speak to you in Spanish,” says Cartagena, “but told you not to worry, that I’d be repeating it in English, would you listen to the Spanish?”


The last thing bilingual education needed was the furor stirred up last August when the Department of Education proposed regulations to make it mandatory. Even supporters of bilingual instruction, such as the New York state Board of Regents, opposed the rules as “a severe and unwarranted intrusion of the Federal government” into educational programs under state jurisdiction. Such views are likely to be backed by the Reagan Administration–although not at the expense of the concept itself. Reagan’s team favors bilingual instruction as long as it is transitional, moving students rapidly to the full-time use of English. But that concession will be small consolation to those who believe the United States is critically short of citizens fluent in several languages–a point that seems clear to 11year-old Betty Rodriguez at PS 25. “Knowing two languages,” she says, “will help me advance in the future.”


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