As subsequent waves of immigrants have hit America’s shores, the country has wrestled with how best to teach their children. And many parents have lobbied to have them taught in their native language.
In the mid-1800s, New York opened schools where German was the language of choice, according to Richard Rothstein, a research associate with the Economic Policy Institute who has studied the history of bilingual education. By the late 1880s, the number of U.S. bilingual schools had peaked.
San Francisco opened a Chinese school in 1885 to teach the increasing number of students of Chinese ancestry — and also to segregate them. Texas even had seven Czech-language public schools. And an 1872 Oregon law allowed voters to establish schools where children would be taught in their native language.
“Bilingual education has been around for a long time,” Rothstein said.
And so have its critics. An example: In 1889, the governor of Wisconsin attempted to ban German from being taught in public schools.
Over the years, opposition spread. After the country’s entrance into World War I, it became “unpatriotic” to speak anything but English — especially when Americans were fighting against the Germans and Italians. And so, according to Rothstein, foreign-language public schools largely disappeared.
Demand for bilingual teaching resurfaced during the Cold War.
In the early 1950s, an influx of highly educated Cuban refugees, who did not want their children to lose their Spanish, landed in Florida’s Dade County. In 1961, Dade schools became probably the first in the nation to offer bilingual programs since the 1920s, said James Crawford, author of “Bilingualism in America: A Forgotten Legacy.”
The federal government made its first significant overture on behalf of immigrant students with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin.
According to Alexander Sapiens, a professor of education at San Jose State University that landmark legislation was followed four years later by the Bilingual Education Act, known as Title VII, co-sponsored by California senator Alan Cranston. That law makes federal funding available for programs to meet the needs of students who don’t speak English fluently.
Today, California schools receive about $390 million a year in state and federal funds to help students with limited English skills through services ranging from tutors to after-school homework programs.
A series of court rulings also have laid the groundwork for bilingual programs:
Lau vs. Nichols (1974). After students of Chinese ancestry sued the San Francisco Unified School District, the Supreme Court ruled the district must provide special language instruction to allow non-English-speaking students to understand the same lessons and textbooks as their English-speaking counterparts.
Castaneda vs. Pickard (1981). This Texas case set the standards by which schools could determine whether they had complied with the law. A federal court said schools were required to establish programs, based on educational research, for students who did not speak English fluently and demonstrate students are making progress in overcoming language barriers.
Teresa P. vs. Berkeley Unified School District (1989) gave districts wide latitude in choosing programs to meet the needs of students who were not fluent in English — as long as they prove students are served well.