Bilingual Education in the U.S.

Historical and Political Perspectives

I became one of the “pioneer” Korean bilingual teachers in the mid-70’s in Los Angeles Koreatown schools shortly after the historical U.S. Supreme Court Case called “Lau vs. Nichols.” In the early 80’s, I worked as an advisor on Bilingual Education. Subsequently, I was promoted to specialist in the Asian Languages Programs in the Central District Bilingual Office, where I had an opportunity to work with different Asian Languages programs and cultures. In the late 80’s, I was assigned as Assistant Principal at Hobart School, right in the heart of Koreatown, where Korean bilingual programs were well-established. However, since 1993, I became the principal at Third Street School in Hancock Park.

At Third Street School, parents have requested not to have their children participate in bilingual programs. Therefore, we do not have any basic bilingual programs. Every class is part of the English Language Development Program, now known as Alternative Instructional Program, in which instruction is conducted in English only.

Having worked and lived in the midst of political and pedagogical debates surrounding bilingual education for almost 25 years, I thought I would like to share some of the historical and political perspectives of bilingual education.

When Johnnie cannot read, some people attribute to his possible learning disability. When Jose cannot read, they immediately accuse bilingual education. Because bilingual education can mean many things to many people, it is subject to popular misconceptions. Bilingual education has become so polarized and politicized due to external pressures and criticisms. Although bilingual education is a direct result of the social justice movement, there have been many strong feelings that have often confused the main issues. One of the reasons is that researchers and practitioners have not done a good job in communicating with the public.

Quality bilingual education programs enable children and youth to learn English and meet high academic standards including proficiency in more than one language. In my opinion, James Crawford, former journalist, author, and educator, does a good job in articulating bilingual education from a broader perspective. His three books reflect his thinking. They are: Bilingual Education: History, Politics, Theory, and Practice; Hold Your Tongue; Bilingual ism and the Politics of “English Only”, and Language Loyalties: A Source Book on the Official English Controversy.

Before 1950’s, bilingual education meant English and German. After 1960’s, it means Spanish and English, of course. I would like to loosely divide 4 major historical periods of bilingual education in the United States:

1. Pre-Civil War

Because of the massive immigration of Germans into Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, America’s first bilingual education laws were enacted in those states in the 1840’s. Later that decade, California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas passed bilingual education laws to serve their burgeoning Spanish-speaking population.

2. Post-Civil War

Despite the increase in the number of transatlantic immigrants coming to America, a movement arose that advocated educating students in English only.

A large influx of Anglos came to California after the Gold Rush. They helped enact a law in 1870 which mandated education in English only. 37 states followed the states lead.

3. 1960’s and 1970’s

In the early sixties, the wave of Cuban political exiles coming to Dade County, Florida resulted in the states initiating Spanish bilingual programs in 1963.

In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Bilingual Education Act, four years after signed the Civil Rights Act. 1971 saw California Governor Ronald Reagan sign that state’s bilingual education act. 30 states followed by beginning native language instruction. This movement climaxed in 1974 with the Supreme Court’s decision in Lau vs. Nichols, which confirmed the constitutionality of the right to bilingual education.

4. 1980’s and 1990’s

In the mid to late eighties, U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett criticized native language instruction. This followed California Senator Hayakawa’s proposal in 1981 for teaching in English only. Next week, California voters will decide the fate of state bilingual education in the vote on Proposition 227, the Unz Initiative.

Suzie K. Oh is completing her 5th year as principal at Third Street School, Los Angeles Unified School District. She can be reached by fax at (213)256-1765 or by E-mail at SKO [email protected]



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