Chicago and suburban educators disagreed sharply Thursday with federal Education Secretary William Bennett’s characterization of bilingual education as “a failure” but said the federal government sends so little money for bilingual education to Illinois that changing the rules would have little impact. Bennett told a New York civic group Thursday that he would urge Congress to change its regulations to put more emphasis on teaching students to speak English rather than requiring instruction in their own language. “After 17 years of federal involvement and after $1.7 billion in federal funding, we have no evidence that the children whom we sought to help have benefited,” Bennett said.
Illinois education officials, however, said schools here are already doing much of what Bennett advocates. In Chicago, civic leaders said abandoning bilingual education could push the Hispanic dropout rate, now at 56 percent, even higher. “The secretary is wrong,” said Eduardo Cadavid, director of bilingual programs in Chicago. “Our students are learning English and progressing tremendously.” Roberto Rivera, director of the Chicago Intervention Network, part of Mayor Harold Washington’s initiative to combat gang crime and lower the dropout rate, said the evidence in Chicago contradicts Bennett’s statements. “We have figures from three high schools which show that Hispanic students in bilingual education classes are more likely to attend school and to eventually graduate than those in all-English classes,” Rivera said. Bennett, however, said the fact that the Hispanic dropout rate nationwide is the same now as it was 20 years ago is evidence that bilingual education doesn’t work. Nationwide the rate is 50 percent, double that of the general population. Maria Seidner, head of bilingual programs for the Illinois State Board of Education, said that of the 77 school districts in Illinois with bilingual programs, only 7 use federal funds. This year Illinois will spend $18.6 million in state funds on bilingual education, of which $13.9 million will go to Chicago public schools. The state will receive only $2 million in federal money, and less than $1 million will go to Chicago. “Our evaluations over the past 15 years have convinced us that what we are doing works,” Seidner said. “The average stay in the bilingual program is a little over two years, and the students move into the regular program and are not behind their peers.” In the current school year, Chicago has 36,000 students in bilingual education programs, taught by 1,200 teachers. An additional 8,000 students are in bilingual education programs in suburban and Downstate schools. Elk Grove Township Elementary District 59 has more than 200 students who speak one of 17 different native languages. The district has been used as a model for districts with small numbers of children who speak many different languages. Program Director Lee Mydill said that Bennett was “unfair in criticizing all bilingual programs as if they were the same.” But she agreed that the emphasis ought to be on learning English. “We use the native language as a tool to explain concepts while the student is learning English,” Mydill said. “But we don’t try to maintain the native language after English is learned. When our students move into the regular classes, they show the entire range of abilities from gifted to remedial.” Statewide, the most common language in bilingual education is Spanish, followed by Arabic, Laotian, Korean, Assyrian, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Greek, Polish, Japanese, Cambodian, Hmong, Gujarati, Urdu, Russian, French and Haitian, according to state figures.