McALLEN – As passionate debates over how to educate nonnative English speakers flare up in some states, seven Texas educators urged lawmakers Wednesday to continue the federal government’s bilingual education program.

U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-McAllen, a member of the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth and Families, played host to the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Michael Castle, R-Delaware, for two hours of testimony in the only field hearing to be held nationwide on reauthorizing the 1968 Bilingual Education Act.

The law, designed to help nonnative English speakers keep up with their English-dominant peers, is up for a five-year congressional renewal as part of the $12 billion Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Teachers, public school administrators and teacher trainers presented successful bilingual education models and advised against strict time limits for learning English or testing in core subjects without considering language proficiency.

They also stressed parent participation and asked lawmakers to change the student identifier “limited English proficient” to “English-language learning.”

“The word ‘limited’ seems to convey that there’s something wrong, that there’s a deficiency,” said Hilda Medrano, dean of the College of Education at the University of Texas Pan American in Edinburg.

Panelists couched their arguments in terms of global engagement and appreciating languages as assets and building blocks.

“The native language plays a very important role in the intellectual, academic and cognitive development of a child,” said Josefina Tinajero, assistant dean of the University of Texas at El Paso’s College of Education and president of the National Association for Bilingual Education. “The things that they learn in their native language … are going to be available in their second language.”

This year, the federal government appropriated $224 million for bilingual education.

The Clinton administration recommended increasing that amount to $329 million for fiscal year 2000, and it proposed testing all children after three years in bilingual education classes.

None of the 17 Republicans and 14 Democrats on the subcommittee has advocated the complete dismantling of federal support of bilingual education, although some oppose bilingual education in principle.

At a hearing last month in Washington, Republicans selected five of the six witnesses, and testimony by a teacher and the lobbying group English First was critical of the federal program.

Hinojosa handpicked Wednesday’s witnesses, including a Region One Education Service Center administrator and the El Paso School District superintendent.

“A lot of eyes end up seeing and hearing what we do here today,” Hinojosa told panelists.

California is the only state to have dropped bilingual education. A year after voters there overwhelmingly supported eliminating it, the focus has turned to evaluating the effects of that move.

Last week, a county grand jury found evidence the Los Angeles School District is continuing to provide bilingual education, contrary to the state mandate.

Meanwhile, amazing test score gains at a San Diego school district obeying the law were retracted after the testing company admitted inaccurately calculating the numbers.

Medrano pointed out that she and her peers were forced to shed their Spanish language skills in their early school years.

“And then we had to turn around in high school and learn Spanish as a foreign language,” Medrano said. “It just doesn’t make sense to us.”

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