Nearly three of four Texans support bilingual education, although they differ over how long students should be taught in their native language before they are placed in regular English-only classes, according to a Texas Poll released today .
The poll does not clarify the more complex issue of whether students who speak limited English should be moved rapidly or gradually into regular English-only classes or if Texans approve of current programs.
But it underscores the sharp contrast in attitudes between Lone Star State residents and those in California, who last month overwhelmingly passed a ballot initiative dismantling bilingual education in the schools.
“In California, because there are so many immigrants, bilingual education is seen as a program that only benefits immigrants,” said Rodolfo de la Garza, a University of Texas government professor and pollster. “In Texas, there is a broader recognition that Mexicans have been here a long time and that Spanish is important to the vitality of the state.”
De la Garza faults wedge politics, pitting non-English-speaking Hispanic and Asian immigrants against largely white English-speaking Californians, for the demise of bilingual instruction in that state. By contrast, he said, Texas leaders, including Gov. George W. Bush and State Board of Education Chairman Jack Christie, support such programs.
In the poll, 72 percent of Texans said it is important or very important for public schools to offer bilingual education.
The Texas Poll, conducted June 1-12 by the Office of Survey Research at the University of Texas, interviewed 1,014 people. The sampling error is 3 percentage points, which means results can vary that much in either direction.
Earlier this month, 61 percent of California voters opted to dismantle their bilingual education program, which had been a fixture in public schools since the 1960s.
De la Garza said the Texas Poll results should be read as a broad endorsement not of the state’s bilingual education programs, but rather of the concept of bilingual instruction.
For instance, fewer than half of Texans — 46 percent — said the programs are effective, while 30 percent said they are not effective and 20 percent did not know . And Texans were sharply divided over whether students should be taught in English only (24 percent), taught in their native language for a brief time (38 percent) or taught in both languages (36 percent).
Political and public support for Texas bilingual programs may hinge on how well and how quickly they prepare students for regular classes, de la Garza and others said.
“Texans support programs that work, and Governor Bush agrees that if bilingual education is teaching children to read and comprehend English as quickly as possible, we should keep it,” said Linda Edwards, a spokeswoman for Bush. “Any program that does not should be eliminated.”
Christie, a Republican from Houston who was appointed by Bush, believes that the best bilingual programs are those that move students into regular classes in three years or less. He cited a program in the Mission Independent School District in South Texas, which does that in two years. Christie said those students are matching their peers in performance on state achievement exams.
But Christie said he knows firsthand why teaching children in their native language until they learn English is preferable to so-called immersion instruction approved by California voters and included in the platform of the Texas Republican Party. Bilingual instruction aims to help students with limited English skills learn certain subjects while gradually learning English. In immersion programs, students typically are placed in a yearlong program that immerses them in English, and then they are steered to regular English-only classes.
As a volunteer at a middle school in Houston several years ago, Christie was assigned to help in a science class. He worked with a group of Hispanic students, including a recent immigrant named Jos.
“I started explaining to Jos the electron configuration and how elements form molecules, how for example, sodium attaches to make salt.”
“Jose gave me a blank stare,” Christie recalled.
A student tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Jos no comprende ngls.”
“Jose didn’t have a clue about what was going on in the classroom,” Christie said. “This kid was guaranteed to be a dropout if someone didn’t stop and help him in his native language.”
The Texas Poll
The latest Texas Poll asked Texans whether they support bilingual education, which Texas public schools by law are required to provide to students who speak no or limited English. Texans overwhelmingly supported such programs, though they split over whether programs should be brief or lengthy.
Q: In Texas, public schools are required by law to provide bilingual education — that is, programs to help students who have limited English proficiency. How important is it that Texas public schools offer bilingual education programs to students with limited English proficiency.
Important … 72%
Neutral … 3%
Not important … 23%
Don’t know/ no answer … 2%
Q: In your opinion, how effective are bilingual education programs in Texas’ public schools?
Effective … 46%
Neutral … 4%
Not effective … 30%
Don’t know / no answer … 20%
Q: Which is any of these position is closest to your point of view?
Should be taught in English only … 24%
Assisted in native language for a brief time … 38%
Taught in both English and native language … 1%
None … 1%
Don’t know/ no answer …1%
The Spring 1998 Texas Poll was conducted June 1-12 by Scripps of Survey Research at the University of Texas. Pollsters interviewed 1,014 adults by phone in a systematic random sample of active telephone exchanges statewide. Margin of error for the whole sample is plus or minus three percentage points.
Source: Scripps Howard Texas Poll