Public Advocate Opposes Bilingual-Education Plan

TRENTON—The state Department of the Public Advocate has charged that a controversial plan to send bilingual students into English-only classes sooner is unjustified and could be illegal.

The state Department of Education put the plan on hold after receiving the objections.

Critics say the department’s proposal will reduce the number of students who qualify for bilingual classes.

The state Board of Education, which was scheduled to vote on the measure Sept. 2, instead will continue studying the plan.

Assistant Commissioner Richard DiPatri yesterday said the move does not signal that the state is backing down, but only indicates that it is taking time to review issues raised by Deputy Public Advocate Rolando Torres Jr.. “We have to analyze this. The public advocate has come out in opposition, and we don’t take that lightly,” DiPatri said. “They’re saying that what we’re proposing is illegal.”

According to the department, standards governing when students are moved out of bilingual education programs vary from district to district and may result in students being kept out of regular, English-only classes too long.

“Some students may be kept in the program when they are ready to succeed in the regular, monolingual program,” said a report by the department.

Education Commissioner Saul Cooperman proposed the change, and state education officials contend uniform standards are needed.

Critics, however, say uniform standards are unworkable because while a child may be able to converse in English, he may not have the language skills needed to do schoolwork and participate in English-only classes.

Schools now use teacher evaluations, class performance, and scores on language tests to gauge a student’s readiness to be put in English-only classes.

Torres contended that the proposal may violate the state Bilingual Education Act, a 1975 which requires school districts to provide separate classes for students who do not speak English. The plan would “contravene the legislative intent of the law and render its purpose meaningless,” he said.

He cites the opinions of bilingual experts who contend that rigid performance tests are unreliable as the sole method to judge English proficiency. He also cites experts who say premature mainstreaming of bilingual students could exacerbate the dropout rate as those students “become frustrated with their inability to compete with regular students.”

Torres also contends the department has not produced any analysis of the current system that demonstrates it is ineffective and is keeping students in bilingual classes too long.

Several dozen critics turned out at a May hearing to condemn the plan.

The critics, most of whom were bilingual educators from throughout the state, called the proposal discriminatory and illegal and said it is motivated by financial and political concerns. They said they feared it would reverse a decade of progress in bilingual education.

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