Bilingual education leads agenda

LULAC leaders gather for weeklong convention

Defending bilingual education and fighting vouchers will be among the central issues when the League of United Latin American Citizens convenes its 69th annual convention in Dallas on Sunday.

Brent Wilkes, LULAC’s executive director, said bilingual education is an important option for families.

“We support bilingual education as an opportunity for parents and students,” he said. “We don’t think that it’s the answer for every student, but we certainly believe that they should have the option.”

Such programs, he said, have been especially effective for students in limited English proficiency programs.

Hector Flores, LULAC’s national vice president, said the league will be aggressive from the statehouse to the courthouse when it comes to defending bilingual education in Texas.

Being bilingual, he said, is an asset of growing importance.

“With our proximity to Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean,

the majority of people in the Western Hemisphere are Spanish-speaking, and it would be a key resource to have a work force that is bilingual or trilingual or multilingual,” he said.

LULAC is the oldest and largest Hispanic organization in the United States, with 150,000 members. The convention runs from Sunday through Saturday at the Hyatt Regency Dallas. The Dallas-Fort Worth area is the ninth-largest Hispanic market in the nation.

Mr. Flores said he’s concerned that Hispanics’ desire to preserve cultural ties is sometimes perceived as un-American.

“Our loyalty is always with this country,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that we have to give up the language of our ancestors, the customs of our ancestors or the culture of our ancestors. They’re not opposed to one another; they’re compatible.”

Ideally, Mr. Wilkes said, more students would be placed in dual bilingual classes that mix English and foreign-language students so that each child becomes bilingual.

LULAC suffered a major defeat earlier this month when Californians voted to eliminate bilingual education.

Mr. Wilkes said that vote will prematurely force non-native English-speakers into mainstream classes, overwhelming those students and slowing down the pace of instruction for English-speaking students.

“After about a two-year period of this kind of stuff, everybody’s going to want to change it back,” he said.

In December, LULAC’s Texas board strayed from the national organization’s path when it gave a qualified endorsement to a voucher proposal geared toward students from low-performing schools.

But earlier this month, the state’s general membership reversed that position, unanimously adopting a resolution stating that the league “strongly opposes state and federal legislation to establish any school finance system, voucher or otherwise, that transfers to private schools public tax funds, which should instead be used to reduce class size, hire qualified bilingual education teachers and pay for adequate classroom facilities.”

Vouchers have often been promoted as a way to help poor families trapped in bad schools. Mr. Wilkes, however, said he doubts they would really help the neediest families attend private schools.

“It’s mainly going to benefit families that are already going to these schools, helping them to pay part of their tuition costs,” he said.

Belen Robles, LULAC’s national president, said the league is committed to supporting adequate funding for education.

Rather than diverting funds to private schools, Ms. Robles said, LULAC leaders want to see more emphasis put on improving public schools.

“What we really need to do is focus on the quality of education available in the public school system. And one of the things that we really feel is that teachers need to be paid as true professionals,” Ms. Robles said.

Adelfa Callejo, a Dallas attorney and longtime LULAC member, said the problem is one of commitment.

“Frankly, I think we’re tired of the schools experimenting with our children,” she said. “There have been so many experiments, and I don’t think they’ve been very successful.

“Instead of investing money in vouchers, we just need to put pressure on the different trustees in the various cities and get them to do something about the low-performing schools,” Ms. Callejo said.

As the 6,000 or so league members gather this week, much attention will be on the next generation of leaders.

“LULAC is very committed to education,” Ms. Callejo said. “It’s our Number 1 issue. And it’s not a Hispanic issue, it’s an American issue.”

Ms. Robles said she hopes LULAC is able to form a coalition with African-American, Asian-American and American Indian groups to lobby for education, affirmative action and other issues that affect their communities.

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