A lack of qualified teachers, scarce learning materials, potential cuts in federal funding and attacks from opponents were cited as major problems facing bilingual education in the United States by educators meeting in Chicago last week. In a four-day conference that ended Saturday, national and local experts renewed their commitment to bilingual education–teaching in two languages –while conceding that problems remained. “We are not above criticism,” said Becky Orphan, principal of Budlong Elementary School on the North Side, which has bilingual programs in Greek, Spanish, Assyrian and Korean. “But those who criticize must also have an open mind to the strengths of bilingual education.”
Leaders of the National Association for Bilingual Education, the strongest proponent of bilingual education in the nation, sharply criticized U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett for his insistence that more English and less native-language instruction be included in federally funded programs. In the fall, Bennett called for a reform of bilingual education. And last week, nine conservative senators introduced a bill in Congress that mirrors Bennett’s views. It would lift the present 4 percent cap on the amount of federal funds for bilingual education that can be used in programs that don’t use native-language instruction to teach immigrant children. The federal government is spending $139 million this year on bilingual education. Programs in Illinois are funded mostly by state and local taxes, but in other parts of the country, “bilingual education could not exist without federal money,” said Josue Gonzalez, former director of federal bilingual programs under President Jimmy Carter and a Chicago school official. Chavez said there were 10.7 million children nationwide whose native language is not English. In Illinois, there are 162,000 such children, of whom 45,000 are in bilingual programs. That number is expected to increase to 60,000 in the next two years.