When Lizet Aranda’s history teacher used words she hadn’t learned yet in English, she never spoke up.
She was too ashamed, she said, to expose her lack of English comprehension to her classmates.
“I didn’t understand much of what was being said, but I was too embarrassed to say anything,” said Aranda, a Highland High School junior who was born in Mexico.
She said she wasn’t surprised, then, to learn last month she had failed the course and will have to take it again next year to graduate.
But Aranda believes it might have gone differently if it hadn’t been for Highland’s bilingual education program, which she said denies students the chance to learn English as quickly as she and her family would like.
Now, Aranda and 13 other students are suing Albuquerque Public Schools, demanding the district, in effect, scrap its bilingual programs.
Aranda’s mother, Amada, a Mexican immigrant who works as a maid, has already traveled to Washington to address Congress on her concerns with bilingual education.
The Arandas and other plaintiffs favor a program in which intensive English language assistance takes precedence over courses in which students are allowed to study in their native languages.
The case could go to court by January.
The lawsuit has the financial backing of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a national organization that played a role in California voters’ recent decision to eliminate most bilingual programs in that state.
Still, an attorney representing the 14 students admits that dismantling APS’ bilingual programs won’t be easy.
“This is a David-and-Goliath case,” said David Standridge, a 26-year-old attorney who is working the case for free because he is politically opposed to bilingual instruction.
Not only must Standridge prove that bilingual instruction has harmed his clients, he also needs to show they were unfairly placed in the program and discriminated against because of their national origin.
He also will be fighting more than 75 years of state history, which bilingual advocates say has firmly established New Mexico as a state that favors bilingual education.
An issue of choice
Standridge said the bulk of the lawsuit ultimately rests on the basic issue of choice.
“We just want parents to be the ones to decide what services their children receive in school,” he said.
At APS, he said, many of his clients have been steered into bilingual education without their parents being told of other options.
In some cases, he said, parents who have insisted on having their children taken out of bilingual classes have been offered no services at all.
Aranda said that’s what happened to her at Highland when she told administrators she did not want to enroll in a Spanish-language U.S. history course.
What she wanted, instead, was a history course taught by an English-as-a-Second-Language teacher. In that type of a class, students learn in English, but teachers modify their instruction so the language is understandable to students with limited English.
Aranda said she was told no such class was available.
And that’s when she found herself enrolled in a traditional English-language history class, where she said it was impossible to keep up.
Officials at Highland and APS won’t comment on details of the suit or Aranda’s experience.
But those who oversee bilingual services for the district dismiss allegations that parents don’t have any choices.
“Bilingual education is entirely optional,” said Virginia Duran-Ginn, APS’ head of bilingual instruction. “So if a parent wants their child to have English-only instruction, they can do that.”
If they choose, she said, parents can have their children take all classes in English with one period in an English-as-a-Second-Language course.
Duran-Ginn said she has heard of no instances where parents are forced to keep their children in a bilingual program.
But Standridge said that at schools like Highland, where more than a dozen bilingual classes are offered, there are few options for parents who do not favor the bilingual approach.
“Our position is that bilingual education should be something parents opt into, rather than having to opt out of the program,” he said.
At the heart of the bilingual lawsuit is the assumption that schools have a financial incentive to draw students into bilingual programs, which are paid for by the state according to student count.
Among his clients are three Anglo students who speak only English, but say they were improperly placed in bilingual classes.
Standridge said he will present evidence in court to back up that claim.
He also points to a ruling by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in 1995 that the district was failing to properly identify students who needed language services.
APS is under an agreement with the federal government to improve its services to limited-English students. Part of that includes properly identifying who needs language help.
But Standridge said there are bigger problems with how students are singled out for bilingual education.
The lawsuit alleges the state’s bilingual programs unfairly segregate students based on national origin.
State and district officials deny that.
Standridge points to language in the laws that govern New Mexico’s bilingual education programs.
The 1973 state Bilingual Multicultural Education Act states that bilingual programs are to be aimed at “linguistically and culturally” diverse students.
In order to draw state money for bilingual programs, then, schools must identify a student as non-Anglo and show that a language other than English is spoken in the home.
Other students can be included in bilingual classes, but they do not qualify for state bilingual funding.
Standridge said those guidelines, target Hispanics and treat them differently than other students. And that, he said, is a clear violation of the federal government’s Equal Education Opportunities Act.
Supporters of New Mexico’s bilingual programs say decades of state law back the teaching of at least two languages in the schools.
That philosophy dates back to 1911, with the drafting of the state constitution.
For starters, the constitution states that children of Spanish descent should receive an equal education and should not be taught in separate schools.
It also calls for the state to train teachers to become proficient in both English and Spanish, but attorney general opinions have said not all teachers must be bilingual.
“The constitution is really what makes New Mexico unique as far as bilingual education is concerned,” said Mary Jean Habermann, who oversees bilingual instruction for the state Department of Education.
Even before other states were considering offering help to non-English speaking students, Habermann said, New Mexico was teaching such students in their home language.
New Mexico was the first state, in 1968, to have its state Board of Education release a policy statement favoring the bilingual approach. The state also was first in certifying ESL teachers, and first to draft bilingual education laws.
In each instance, Habermann said, the aim was the same — preserve the state’s multicultural heritage.
Jorge Amselle of the Center for Equal Opportunity, said New Mexico’s bilingual programs have done the opposite of what the state’s constitution intended.
Rather than providing students who speak Spanish an equal, unsegregated education, he said, the programs have separated those students and offered them inferior instruction.