Throughout its more than 200 years of history in the United States, bilingual education has inspired both strong support and great animosity.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, a smattering of local programs throughout the Midwest and East Coast used bilingual programs to educate European and Eastern European immigrant children.
Then early in the 20th century, during the world wars, a swelling American nationalism inspired an anxiousness about immigrants and foreigners that forced most of these programs to shut down.
The current attack on the program in California comes as it is experiencing the most nationwide political support it has ever seen and as educators and researchers have done more work to evaluate and improve curriculum.
“The mood is schizophrenic,” said James Lyons, executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education.
“There is a celebration of the innovations, of what we have learned over the past 20 to 30 years to serve a growing, culturally diverse population,” Lyons said. “And then there’s the other side.”
But, historians, note, the cultural contradictions on bilingual education have always existed.
As German immigrants entered the newly formed United States, religious and local public schools established bilingual education programs to meet the needs of settling families speaking German.
Beginning with Ohio in 1839, a dozen U.S. territories passed laws approving bilingual public education, wrote James Crawford in his book, “Hold Your Tongue: Bilingualism and the Politics of English Only.”
At that time, the German language, like Spanish today, was pervasive not just as a subject but as a medium of instruction in the rural Midwest and in cities like Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Baltimore, Milwaukee, and St. Louis.
By the year 1900, there were at least 600,000 children, about 4 percent of American elementary school enrollment, public and religious, receiving part or all of their education in the German language.
Like today, as political affirmation of the program peaked, enmity towards immigrants – who were increasingly from eastern and southern European nations, like Poland, Italy and Greece – grew, said New York University history professor, Jonathan Zimmerman.
Between 1897 and 1915, 13 states passed laws requiring the use of English for all instruction.
In 1918, Texas enacted criminal penalties for teachers speaking any language other than English in the classroom, with the exception of foreign languages in the upper grades. Many states in the Southwest prohibited children and teachers from speaking Spanish.
By the end of World War I, 37 states imposed restrictions on foreign-language instruction. A few school districts held ceremonies to burn their German textbooks. And bilingual education was virtually non-existent.
The result was many immigrant children felt shame about their ethnic identity.
“Parents wanted their children to learn English as a vehicle of social mobility in America,” Zimmerman wrote in a recent summary of the history of bilingual education.
As the nation began healing ethnic wounds caused by World War II and the advent of the Civil Rights movement stirred Hispanic activism and ethnic pride, interest in bilingual education grew.
In 1968, after U.S. Sen. Ralph Yarborough, of Austin, Texas, made impassioned pleas to meet “the special educational needs of large numbers of children of limited English-speaking ability in the United States,” U.S. legislators passed legislation that gave dollars directly to school districts operating bilingual education programs, for teacher training, for migrant student services and other needs.
In 1969, the Texas Legislature passed a bilingual education bill allowing, but not requiring, schools to teach bilingual education up to the sixth grade. At the same time, they repealed the 1918 law making teaching in any other language but English illegal.
“Part of the reason bilingual education came to play is that it was in response to the total ignorance or inattention paid to the students in the system,” said Kenji Hakuta, a professor of Education at Stanford University. “It was an important advocacy mechanism to make the system pay attention to these children.”
In 1974, the Supreme Court decided unanimously that school districts must provide children those children unable to speak English classes or instruction on English or provide subject instruction in children’s native language.
And since then, as the immigrant population continued to grow, the numbers of bilingual education programs grew, too.
Today, 36 percent of all schools throughout the nation offer bilingual education, according to statistics from a 1994 U.S. Department of Education survey of schools.
And although 85 percent of them offer English as a second language programs, researchers have been studying and emphasizing bilingual education programs.
“Since the 1970s, when a lot of research at the federal level was focused on bilingual education, the policy emphasis was on bilingual education,” Hakuta said. “If a school district wanted to receive federal bilingual funds, it needed to do bilingual education instruction or justify why they couldn’t provide bilingual education.”
The emphasis on the bilingual education option, moved schools unable to provide adequate bilingual education to apply for funds, he said, and made it a target for groups seeking to make English the official language.
“I think the backlash now is a continuation of the backlash against immigrants and the money being spent on immigrants,” said Theresa Bustillos, who is the legal director for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Los Angeles.
Bustillos said that bilingual education should not be blamed for the statewide neglect of poor and immigrant children.
History points to bilingual education as a viable educational option, Hakuta said.
But, opponents of bilingual education said that the current incarnation of bilingual education does not serve immigrant children today. Bilingual education, they argue, has gone unchecked.
“A lot of those programs (in the 1800s) were at private schools, they were not quite the same as what we’re doing now,” said Jorge Amselle, of the Center for Equal Opportunity. “There were no bilingual education theories at the time, they are a modern creation. Now its an industry.”
If bilingual education loses and wanes in American popularity again, historians believe it likely will come back, as the nation continues to maintain a diverse population.