The Massachusetts Board of Education, led by its crusty chairman, Boston University Chancellor John Silber, has voted unanimously to give local school officials greater flexibility in handling their bilingual education programs – allowing them, among other things, to increase classroom sizes from 18 to 20, and to permit bilingual classrooms with a wider range of ages and native languages. The board also backed associated reform legislation submitted by Governor Weld and Education Commissioner Robert Antonucci, with the support of the school superintendents’ association.

Bravo! In 1970, Massachusetts became the first state to establish mandated bilingual education programs, which start out teaching students all subjects (arithmetic, history, etc.) in their native languages, and then gradually expand the time during which the youngsters are exposed to instruction in English.

Well, after nearly three decades, the system’s weaknesses are increasingly obvious, and it is time to mend it or, if that can’t be done, to end it.

Bilingual education may have been well-intentioned when it started out, but good intentions are not as important as good results. Bilingual education costs taxpayers more money than the returns so far justify. Indeed, a good case can be made that bilingual education is actually counterproductive, all too often retarding students’ progress in learning English, promoting attitudes of ethnic exclusivity, and perpetuating unneeded teaching and administrative positions.

For example, the main provision in Governor Weld’s proposed legislation would put a three-year limit on the amount of time youngsters can stay in bilingual education programs. Right now, many students are allowed – even subtly encouraged – to linger on for six or seven years. This is unacceptable. Children pick up a new language on the streets faster than that! Any youngster who hasn’t done so may well have problems, but they are not primarily linguistic ones; they relate to low cognitive ability, or poor motivation, or unstable family circumstances – factors that bilingual education is not designed to alleviate.

Then there is the ethnic angle. A major purpose of the public schools is to help transform young newcomers into first-class Americans – willing and able to be socially assimilated. But bilingual programs often undermine this goal by turning into self-contained ethnic enclaves.

According to Alfredo Nunez, principal of Boston’s Aggasiz Elementary School, this process “perpetuates a second-class-citizen mentality that produces a sort of feeling of being in a ghetto.” This ill serves both the youngsters involved and the society at large.

In a related process, bilingual programs sometimes become parallel school systems, with their own array of teachers and administrators, many of whom (especially those whose weak grasp of English disqualifies them from being employed in the mainstream programs) have an obvious stake in perpetuating the bilingual programs. The only way to do that, of course, is to keep up the number of students “needing” the programs.

This is an unhealthy situation: After all, the main purpose of the public schools is to serve the educational interests of the students, not to preserve the occupational interests of the teachers and administrators.

Bilingual programs need to be reformed or they risk being eliminated. They cannot continue to be allowed to siphon off money that financially overburdened school systems could put to better uses.

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