California’s June ballot measure to virtually eliminate bilingual education is the most drastic reform yet proposed in the nation, but the Golden State is not alone in debating how best to educate the country’s 3.2 million children who are not fluent in English.
Bilingual education advocates say millionaire Ron Unz’s English for the Children initiative — which would replace native language instruction with one year of English instruction — would send California backward in a country in which bilingual programs are growing in number and acceptance.
But critics believe California voters will send a message that could spark the end of programs nationwide that they say fail to teach children English soon enough, if at all.
“After the initiative in California passes, and we think it will pass, you will see a national debate beginning on the issue, and we think other states will follow suit,” said Tim Schultz, spokesman for U.S. English, an advocacy group promoting the English language.
Already, the debate is under way in several states.
Denver Public Schools, for instance, are attempting to limit to three years the length of time a student can receive some instruction in his native language, commonly called bilingual education. School officials there also face a federal civil rights challenge over their existing bilingual program — a scenario some say could be repeated in California if the initiative passes.
Massachusetts, too, debated a three-year time limit last year, but it stalled in the Legislature.
Meanwhile, schools in places where trade with Mexico and Latin America is prevalent — such as Florida and Texas — are under pressure >from business leaders to ensure that children not only learn English but also maintain an ability to speak, read and write Spanish.
Typically, bilingual programs are considered “transitional,” meaning instruction in a child’s first language is phased out once the child masters English well enough to join the mainstream.
But the term “bilingual education” is sometimes used to describe a variety of approaches for teaching limited-English-proficient students. They include programs that aim to teach a student two languages to those that use native-language instruction to keep a child on par academically while learning English to those that use all or primarily all English instruction to teach English.
Only about one-third of limited-English students nationally are in programs that use native-language instruction, comparable to the percentage in California — which educates some 40 percent of the nation’s limited-English students, according to Jim Lyons, executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education. About two-thirds of such students live in four states: California, Texas, New York and Florida.
There is no federal mandate for bilingual education (native-language instruction). While the U.S. government spends about $262 million each year on educating limited-English students, that money funds various approaches.
But the education of children not fluent in English remains a civil rights issue.
A 1974 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Lau v. Nichols, found that placing non-English-speaking students in regular classrooms violated the equal protection provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and said special assistance must be provided to give them access to the regular school curriculum.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights uses a three-prong test to determine if a school district’s program meets the federal requirements:
The program must be recognized as educationally sound or considered a legitimate experimental strategy. It must be effectively implemented, including adequate staff and resources. And, the program must be evaluated to show it is successful in overcoming students’ language barriers.
If the Unz initiative passes, California school districts could find themselves locked in a battle with the Office for Civil Rights if bilingual advocates argue that the new system fails to meet the federal criteria.
That is the current state of affairs in Denver. The case has been referred to the U.S. Justice Department, and Denver Public Schools risk losing their $30 million in federal funding, 10 percent of their total budget.
Meanwhile, school officials in Denver are trying to change the program in contention to one in which the goal would be to shift limited-English students to mainstream classrooms after three years.
“Eight years is too long a time to pick up the new language (English),” said Denver Public Schools spokesman Mark Stevens. He said some students were spending their entire school careers learning their core subjects, such as math and science, in Spanish. Nearly five-sixths of Denver’s limited-English students speak Spanish.
But Stevens said Denver’s proposal pales in comparison to the changes in the Unz initiative.
“Everybody looks to California to see what’s coming. That’s cutting edge, but some of us think that goes too far. (Using) native-language instruction is common sense” to keep students caught up in other subjects while they learn English, Stevens said. “To get rid of native-language instruction and talk about immersion for everybody is pretty cold.”
A three-year time limit on bilingual education also was debated last year in Massachusetts after it was proposed by then-Gov. William F. Weld and endorsed by the state’s education commissioner and board of education.
“I really feel pretty strongly on this point, that we owe it to the kids to get them in and get them out,” Weld said in June.
But the proposal died in the Legislature, where lawmakers questioned whether if it would run afoul of federal civil rights laws.
Educators in Miami are headed in the opposite direction, trying to determine not only how to teach Spanish speakers English, but how to do it without stripping them of Spanish skills.
The debate in Dade County has moved beyond the emotionalism and cultural arguments that often surround bilingual education. Instead, business leaders are telling educators that their programs have failed to produce graduates who are sufficiently bilingual to fill jobs in a city considered the gateway to Latin America.
“It’s a serious problem. It’s an apparent bilingualism, but when it comes to jobs we are rejecting people because their Spanish is so poor,” said Dario Gamboa, senior vice president for Visa International’s Latin America and Caribbean division. Gamboa chairs a task force of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce seeking to raise awareness about the importance of bilingualism.
He said many job candidates speak “Spanglish” — a mix of English and Spanish — and cannot write correctly in Spanish. His office even has trouble hiring secretaries, unless they find recent immigrants who speak and write both Spanish and English.
The Miami-Dade County Public Schools responded this year by adding 38 “developmental bilingual” programs to the 10 already in operation, said Lourdes Rovira,the district’s executive director of bilingual education and foreign languages. The programs aim to preserve and build on a child’s native language as the child becomes proficient in English.
About 14 percent of district students are limited in English and more than half speak Spanish.
In Texas, too, proximity to a Spanish-speaking country makes bilingualism an asset, said Mara Medina Seidner, director of bilingual education for the Texas Education Agency. Mexico is the state’s largest trading partner.
Bilingualism “is valued by an increasing number of both Hispanic and English-speaking parents,” she said.
The Houston school district, the state’s largest, recently decided to implement developmental bilingual education. And the Ysleta schools in the El Paso area — visited recently by officials from the Sacramento City Unified School District — have the goal that all students will graduate with facility in two languages.
Delia Pompa, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs, said bilingual education nationally is “alive and very well. The numbers are growing. The number of kids is growing who have those needs.”
But critics hope the Unz initiative will sound the death knell for bilingual education in California and that the ripple effect will spread far beyond.
“We think the national press is going to pick up on it and people across the country, especially immigrants, are going to see the absurdity of not teaching children English as quickly as possible,” said U.S. English’s Schultz.