In a move certain to anger Hispanic leaders, Education Secretary William J. Bennett today is expected to sharply criticize federal bilingual education as a failure and call for more emphasis on teaching English to non-native children.
In a speech prepared for delivery this morning in New York, Bennett says that two decades of federal bilingual policy “became confused as to purpose and overbearing as to means. As a result, too many children have failed to become fluent in English.”
In the speech, Bennett proposes that federal laws be loosened to allow localities to use bilingual money as they see fit. Currently, only 4 percent of the Education Department’s $139 million annual bilingual aid money may be used for courses not taught in the students’ native language.
Bennett also urges that localities adopt an “English-first” strategy, and his proposals mark a sharp reversal from past bilingual education policy. “As fellow citizens, we need a common language,” he says. “In the United States, that language is English. Our common history is written in English. Our common forefathers speak to us through the ages in English.”
Previous bilingual education policy has centered on the theory that children should be taught in their native language until they gradually learn English over the years. Alternatives to this bilingual approach include English as a second language (ESL) in which children take English courses along with their regular school courses, and immersion, which is an intensive English language workshop.
Advocates of bilingual education, including many Hispanics and their supporters on Capitol Hill, have argued that allowing local school districts more flexibility could mean a return to the old days when non-English speaking immigrants were often thrown into courses and told to “sink or swim.”
Bennett said his proposal should not be mistaken for a return to those days.
The bilingual education program is the largest U.S. government program aimed specifically at Hispanics. It has become something of a symbol of Hispanic cultural pride and political clout, even while generating a strong and emotional backlash among the liberals and conservatives who believe newcomers to this country must learn English.
The debate has been muddied by conflicting research over whether bilingual education works. Bennett, in his speech today, will refer to several recent studies.
The Reagan administration has been slowly moving toward revamping bilingual education in favor of more local flexibility to use federal money for alternative methods. An earlier White House initiative led to the current 4 percent allowance for alternative methods to bilingual education.
Congress would have to approve Bennett’s proposal to lift the 4 percent cap.
The proposals expected today mark Bennett’s first major statement on the issue since taking office. While proposing a major policy shift, Bennett appears to have backed away from other controversial proposals that many had expected him to announce today.
His speech makes no mention of an earlier Education Department proposal to abolish or downgrade the Office of Bilingual Education, and there is no mention of distributing bilingual education funds through a voucher plan, as had been expected.
Movement toward a change in direction was signaled earlier this year when the nation’s top bilingual advisory panel — now dominated by Reagan appointees opposed to bilingual education — broke with tradition and recommended that techniques other than bilingual education be explored. The panel’s recommendation drew a sharp rebuke from Hispanic elected officials and from Hispanic members of Congress, who called for the resignations of the Reagan appointees.
Bennett’s speech today, and the outline of his proposal, was distributed to reporters yesterday with the understanding they withhold it until Bennett’s appearance this morning before the Assembly for a Better New York. The speech was officially released late last night, apparently after the embargo was broken.
In the speech, Bennett says, “After 17 years of federal involvement and $1.7 billion of federal funding, we have no evidence that the children whom we sought to help — that the children who deserve our help — have benefited.”
Bennett says he is proposing the shift rather than continue on the current “failed path.”
Bennett also says he recognizes that bilingual education has become a source of ethnic and cultural pride for Hispanics.
“But a sense of cultural pride cannot come at the price of proficiency in English, our common language,” he adds. “The mastery of English is the key to individual opportunity in America.”