Education czar stresses languages

Richard Riley says schools should teach students English and whatever other language is prevalent in their region

BERKELEY — All students in America should know two languages, Education Secretary Richard Riley told 75 local educators and community leaders at a meeting in a Berkeley elementary school gymnasium on Tuesday.

“Our mind-set should be on that instead of on (just) learning English,” Riley said in response to a question about how to deal with efforts to end bilingual education across the country.

Bilingual education and foreign-language instruction, standards and technology, charter schools and vouchers were among the topics brought up by the collection of Bay Area educators, parents, mayors and other officials who gathered at Malcolm X Elementary with Riley for a roundtable discussion sponsored by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland.

Bilingual education

Riley, a former South Carolina governor who was appointed head of the U.S. Department of Education by President Clinton in 1992, said he found the era of increased immigration in the United States, California and the world “an exciting time,” which, if handled properly, could be “a boon and a blessing for this country.”

The long-term vision of the country, Riley said, should be on teaching students English and whatever other language is prevalent in their region. “We should teach Spanish and English where Spanish is prevalent … Vietnamese, Portuguese or whatever the language is,” he said during the hourlong session.

The dual-language focus would not mean that English would be abandoned, he said. “All children need English to reach their dreams.”

The best method for ensuring that is through bilingual education, “if it is handled right,” he said.

In Riley’s view, the right way means remembering that the purpose of bilingual education is to teach English, maintaining the sound teaching of science, math and other subjects during the program and letting students know that their own culture is valued.

Speaker impresses

John Baugh, a Stanford University education and linguistics professor, said he had been “heartened by the secretary’s willingness to meet with local educators” and do his best to address bilingual education and other pressing issues of the greater Oakland area.

But Baugh said he was disappointed Riley had not provided a concrete answer on how to deal with recent efforts of Ron Unz to spread his agenda to other parts of the nation. Unz is the author of Proposition 209, which banned most bilingual education programs in California schools.

Other roundtable participants said they were impressed as much by the messenger as the message.

“We don’t get access to (presidential) Cabinet members up this close,” said Julie Henderson, executive director of Marcus A. Foster Educational Institute in Oakland. “It was very valuable.”

Supports alternatives

Riley, whose trip to the Bay Area included at least one other roundtable event, also told the group in Berkeley that he supports charter schools and other school-choice movements within the public school system but opposes vouchers for parochial or private tuition. The use of tax dollars for vouchers, he said, makes private and parochial schools “less private and less parochial” and drains resources off public schools.

Rather than pull a few students out of a failing public school with vouchers, Riley said, officials should help straighten out the failing school. If it can’t be fixed, he said, it should be closed.

Riley said that as school begins, Americans should realize they are in a “golden era” of education reform. Standards are being set high for all children, class sizes are being reduced, schools that educate poor students are receiving more technology funds, and schools are offering more challenging courses, he said.

“The tyranny of low-expectations is ending,” he said.

Lisa Shafer covers education. Reach her at 925-943-8345 or [email protected]

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