A Brooklyn parents organization filed suit yesterday against the State Commissioner of Education, charging that tens of thousands of immigrant children in New York City had been permitted to “languish” for up to six years in bilingual classes, learning neither English nor other subjects particularly well.
The suit, by the Bushwick Parents Organization, which represents 150 Brooklyn families, faults the State Education Department for routinely granting waivers that permit school officials to keep children in classes taught in their native language — usually Spanish — beyond the three-year limit allowed by state law.
The suit follows last year’s scathing report on bilingual education by the Board of Education itself. The report concluded that the program was flawed and that students — even recent immigrants — who took most of their classes in English generally fared better academically than those in bilingual classes. .
In the most common bilingual programs, a student has a session of English lessons a day and every other subject, from algebra to social studies, in his or her native language.
“For a lot of kids, bilingual education becomes a prison,” said Robert Smith, a lawyer at the firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, which is representing the parents on a pro bono basis. “They don’t learn the English they need and can’t get out.”
Many parents and educators have criticized the way in which New York City students are steered into bilingual classes. From kindergarten on, every student whose parent has a Hispanic last name or who indicates on a questionnaire that a foreign language is sometimes spoken at home is required to take an English language test. A student who scores in the bottom two-fifths is almost always assigned to a bilingual class.
Each year, the suit said, the New York City Board of Education applies to the state to retain in the bilingual program any student who continues to score poorly, even if he or she has exceeded the three-year maximum. About 75 percent of the students entering the bilingual program in the first, second and third grades, for example, did not graduate into regular classes within three years, the suit said. About 150,000 students are assigned to the city’s bilingual classes, according to board figures.
While state education regulations permit the granting of waivers that allow students to remain in bilingual education for an additional three years, those waivers can only be distributed on an “individual” basis. But the suit contends that the state grants the waivers “en masse” to whomever appears on the lists of test results forwarded by New York City.
A spokesman for the State Department of Education, Christopher Carpenter, said he had not seen a copy of the suit, filed yesterday in State Supreme Court in Albany. But he said the department had always followed the law in granting the waivers.
Mr. Smith, the parents group’s lawyer, refused to identify any of the 15 or so families that had inspired the suit and whose children had been held back in bilingual programs. But he said most were Hispanic immigrants from Puerto Rico or Mexico.