City's Bilingual Education Debated at Spirited Hearing

Armed with a sheaf of rising test scores, Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who led the drive to end bilingual education in California two years ago, told a raucous hearing at City Hall yesterday that New York would be wise to follow his state’s lead.

But few of the parents, students, politicians, educators and advocates arrayed under the room’s ornate chandeliers paid much attention to what Mr. Unz was saying. Indeed, as he argued in favor of immersing Spanish-speaking students in a yearlong crash course in English, he was loudly booed and occasionally heckled with shouts of “Let him go back to California, over there!” and “Go home!”

Mr. Unz had been invited to testify by the organizers of the hearing, a mayoral task force that is studying ways to improve bilingual education and English-as-a-second-language programs. When combined, those classes enroll nearly one of every five public school students in the city.

The task force, according to a draft report of its proposed recommendations, is considering asking the Board of Education to create an alternative to the current system — one that would give children the option of enrolling in an intensive English immersion class — while leaving existing programs in place.

Even staunch advocates of the city’s bilingual system conceded yesterday that it was riddled with problems, as evidenced by the fact that one of every two students enrolled in such classes is still enrolled after three years, and often after eight years, even though such programs are intended to be transitional. Herman Badillo, a former congressman who said he helped write the original bilingual legislation, said he regretted that such programs had often become monolingual — in the native language — and too open-ended.

At the same time, critics of bilingual education stopped well short of advocating a dismantling of the New York system along the lines suggested by Mr. Unz.

Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani said yesterday that students should be barred from spending more than two years in bilingual programs — a strict cutoff that the Board of Education would have to approve, and which would be difficult to enforce given the program’s current failure rates. But he, too, said bilingual education should endure.

“Hopefully we can get the program to what it was originally intended to be,” Mr. Giuliani said at a news conference at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “The program has become, unfortunately, a non-English program. So it isn’t bilingual. Many parents know this.”

When taken together, all of the statements made yesterday suggest that New York City, at least in the short term, is unlikely to follow the lead of Californians, who voted to eliminate bilingual education in 1998, and Arizonans, who, according to statewide polls, are expected to vote overwhelmingly next month to dismantle the state’s bilingual system.

“I am here today not because I want to eliminate bilingual programs, but rather to express my concern about public schools,” said Norma Flores, 35, a native of Mexico whose 9-year-old son attends a bilingual elementary school in East Harlem. “We need to sharpen bilingual education so our students can learn and preserve their native language.”

Ms. Flores was one of a dozen parents brought to the hearing by leaders of the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation, an umbrella organization of neighborhood groups that has been harshly critical of bilingual education.

But like the other parents who spoke yesterday, many of them describing in emotional detail how the system had failed their children, Ms. Flores testified that current classes for limited English learners, however flawed, could be improved with more money, better qualified teachers and principals who are willing to explain the various options to parents.

Mr. Unz, who spent $800,000 of his own money on a ballot initiative to defeat bilingual education in California, has told the leaders of the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation on several occasions that he would be willing to support — and perhaps bankroll — an effort to repeal bilingual education in New York. But his overtures have yet to be accepted.

In taking up the issue of bilingual education, the task force and a separate subcommittee of the Board of Education are studying introductory English programs whose definitions are fluid, and whose ratio of English to foreign language varies greatly, depending on the school, classroom and teacher involved.

In general, in bilingual classes students are taught major subjects — like biology and social studies — in their native tongue while they are given a steadily increasing diet of English-language instruction.

English-as-a-second-language courses often involve much more instruction in English — perhaps upward of three hours a day — with special lessons in mathematics and other courses using props, for example, that can be understood by children regardless of their understanding of English.

Randy M. Mastro, a former deputy mayor who is leading the mayor’s task force, has suggested that a third alternative, the immersion model, be developed to offer even more instruction in English than the English-as-a-second-language courses, with the native language rapidly relegated to a means of last resort.

Juan Figueroa, the president and general counsel of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, an organization that helped craft the current bilingual system three decades ago, said he regretted that Mr. Mastro had voiced his recommendations, however tentatively, before the hearing had taken place.

Mr. Figueroa said he worried that an incremental move toward immersion would someday lead to the end of any education in students’ native languages.

“Keeping your native language, whether it’s Spanish, Cantonese, Russian or Polish, is a good thing,” Mr. Figueroa said. “Unfortunately, the people who are on the other side, I don’t think they value that.”

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