House bill would limit bilingual education

WASHINGTON—Schools could teach non-English-speaking students in their native tongue for only three years before moving them into regular classrooms under legislation being considered by the House.

The measure, which closely resembles a proposal in President Bush’s education plan, would require schools receiving federal bilingual funds to move students into English-speaking classes after three consecutive years of enrollment – a practice already taking root in many school districts but opposed by some bilingual educators.

Principals would have the option of giving students an extra year to become proficient, but a school’s federal funds could be reduced if teachers don’t move enough children into mainstream classes.

Advocates of the current system, which often teaches students for years in their native tongue, oppose time limits for English fluency. They say children learn at different rates and come from increasingly different backgrounds.

“It’s not the best of things to do, because some children move at a slower pace,” said Romeo Romero, director of bilingual education for the Laredo, Texas, school district.

He called the three-year requirement “ridiculous.”

Bilingual advocates say their programs simply don’t get enough funding to be effective, but voters in California and Arizona have passed measures discouraging such programs. Schools officials in New York City, Denver and Chicago now restrict the time students can spend in native language programs, and other districts nationwide are considering similar action.

Critics of the current system say it keeps children from learning English and waters down their lessons.

The bilingual measure will be considered by House lawmakers next week as they debate major education legislation. The Senate, which is considering its own version, did not mandate the transition to English-speaking classes.

The Education Department estimates that 4 million students are Limited English Proficient, or LEP. Of those, about 75 percent are Hispanic. Most are immigrants or the children of immigrants, with the largest concentration living in California, where they make up one-fourth of the public school population.

Bush’s education plan marks the first time the federal government has taken an aggressive stance on the topic.

The Education Department now merely recommends that LEP students be put in classes taught in English after three years. But no money is at stake, even in schools that receive substantial federal funds for poor students.

In those schools, the only requirement is that schools test LEP students for English proficiency three times in their K-12 careers. Subjects such as math and science can be taught in a student’s native language if schools show it’s more effective than teaching in English.

In Bush’s plan, states that do not move enough students into English-speaking classes could lose up to 10 percent of their bilingual funding. In the House version, it’s 20 percent.

The House bill also requires that parents be notified before their child is placed in a program taught in a language other than English. Parents could remove children from such programs if they desired.

Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., championed that provision, saying, “The status quo is condemning an entire generation of limited English-speaking students to mediocrity, robbing these children of a shot at the American dream.”

Don Soifer, executive vice president of the Lexington Institute, a think tank that favors English immersion, said Bush’s plan will raise standards for LEP students. He said students in separate LEP classes sometimes don’t begin to learn written English until fifth grade.

“That segregatory approach is just bad education policy,” he said.

Rep. Hilda Solis, D-Calif., whose district includes parts of Los Angeles and surrounding counties, said the requirements would unfairly punish area schools, in which LEP students are about two-thirds of the enrollment.

She also said the parental consent provision would be “a bureaucratic nightmare.”

Bush and the House would spend $460 million for bilingual education next year, consolidating programs that serve LEP and immigrant students. The change would spread out funding to serve more students, but bilingual advocates say it would give schools only about one-third as much money per pupil.

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