Texas legislators on a Senate education committee were beginning a discussion on bilingual education when one member made a joke.
“They say that if you speak two languages, you’re bilingual. If you speak three or more languages, you’re multilingual,” said state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Democrat from Laredo. “And if you speak only one language, well then, you’re an American.”
The mood was strained. A few lawmakers laughed. Three others showed indifference for the topic by leaving the room.
Sen. Teel Bivens, an Amarillo Republican and the influential committee chairman, simply grinned.
The meeting this spring – to discuss possible policy changes in Texas – reflected the growing interest in bilingual education as the country watches what could become a bellwether vote next month in California.
Ron Unz, a self-made millionaire in California’s Silicon Valley, has proposed an initiative that would virtually abolish programs in bilingual education and English as a second language. In their place would be a one-year intensive English class for limited English speakers.
Californians vote June 2.
Some Texas educators are bracing for the worst.
“This is something extremely cruel for children,” said Robert Milk, director of the University of Texas at San Antonio’s bilingual- bicultural studies program.
“We need to be prepared in Texas because if it does pass, there will be ripple effects,” he told a group of educators last month at a conference on early education.
On the other side, bilingual education detractors argue the program doesn’t teach children English, and children suffer as a result.
“Our research is not complete, but from what we have learned so far, it doesn’t work,” said Chris Patterson, a policy analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a San Antonio organization that supports a school voucher system.
This March, the interim Senate Education Committee met to hear expert testimony on various issues, including bilingual education.
Bivens, bilingual education proponents and conservatives pushing a back-to-basics approach agree that bilingual education is safe in Texas – at least for now.
But the state-level debate could be superceded by federal legislators proposing to cancel funding for bilingual education and rescind laws mandating its use.
Bilingual education encompasses a variety of different approaches to educate students whose primary language isn’t English.
In Texas, the program provides language-minority students with basic instruction in reading, writing and math in their native language while they are learning English. The course lasts through elementary school.
It is unlike English-as-a-second- language programs in secondary schools, which provide no instruction or very little support in a student’s native language.
Texas conservative groups are trying to eliminate the state mandate for the programs.
“Bilingual education is one of the things that we’re trying to do research on during the interim,” said Clara Uras, research director for the Texas Conservative Coalition in Austin. “We plan to have something ready by the 76th Legislature (next year).”
Uras said no state lawmaker has offered support.
Bivens said he was unaware of popular wranglings to end or further limit the program.
“The state’s role is to say what the schools should do. The local district’s role is to determine how to do that,” he said. “I’m not going to get into telling them, ‘Do this program over that.'”
Gov. George W. Bush and Democratic challenger Garry Mauro both said they support bilingual education.
And in April, President Bill Clinton and U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley spoke against the Unz initiative.
“In my opinion, the Unz amendment will lead to fewer children learning English and many children falling further behind in their studies,” Riley said.
Instead of a one-year program as the Unz initiative calls for, Riley proposed that schools consider setting a three-year goal of teaching children academic English and mainstreaming them to English- dominant classrooms.
But also last month , U.S. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, introduced a bill that would remove the federal mandate on bilingual education.
“It’s not as high profile as Social Security, and it’s not something the speaker is discussing every day, but Tom does think it’s an important issue,” said DeLay spokesman John Phillippe.
His GOP colleague, Frank Riggs of California, also introduced legislation in early April to replace the Bilingual Education Act.
Riggs’ “English Language Fluency Act” would repeal the emergency immigrant-education program and remove funds for research on bilingual education teaching methods.
Texas bilingual proponents hope they can dodge the bullets.
“The program is pretty safe here, because our political system is different from California’s, but you never know,” said Albert Cortez of the Intercultural Development Research Association, a San Antonio nonprofit organization that provides training on school finance, bilingual and multicultural issues.
California, unlike Texas, has a referendum system, which allows citizens to gather signatures to petition for an election on proposed laws such as the Unz initiative.
And because Texas has no referendum system, elected officials control state policy making.
“With a referendum system, proposals don’t go through the same scrutiny and process of hearing expert testimony as they do in the Legislature,” said state Sen. Gregory Luna, D-San Antonio.
Luna said Hispanic legislators will defend bilingual education.
“We have a nucleus of Hispanic representation in both the House and the Senate and we will not have a tinge of polarization,” he said.
Other state officials said because of favorable circumstances in Texas, the state likely will not experience the same revolt.
Texas has the second-highest number of students in the country with limited English skills – 513,517. California has 1.4 million.
Texas schools can use bilingual education up to the sixth grade. Then, they must use ESL for secondary school students.
California has fewer limits.
The state requires a school district to provide bilingual-bicultural instruction at all levels if it has 10 or more students within the same age group. If bilingual-bicultural high school teachers aren’t available, the schools must provide students with bilingual aides.
“Our program emphasizes English learning. It’s a transitional, not a (native language) maintenance program, so it’s not as controversial as the policy in California,” said Joe Bernal, a State Board of Education member, who as a Texas legislator three decades ago pushed for state support of bilingual education.
Also, Texas has an accountability system requiring all students, even those in bilingual education and ESL programs, to test for knowledge on reading, writing and math.
The system also requires students with limited English skills to take annual proficiency tests to mark their progress.
“The goal of the bilingual education program is to make them bilingual, and we’re going to be able to measure whether we’re achieving that,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Moses said.
Bilingual education supporters are monitoring the California election like Texans on the Gulf Coast track the paths of hurricanes.
All sides agree that whatever happens June 2 will have a tremendous impact on the rest of the nation.
“We’re watching what is going on in California, because those things tend to show up in some form here in Texas,” Luna said. “Although there’s nothing in the works for the next (legislative) session, we have to be concerned about what is happening in California.”
– Monday: The defenders and the critics marshal their forces.