AUSTIN – Nearly three-fourths of Texans say it is important for public schools to provide bilingual education, but fewer than half think current programs are effective, according to the Texas Poll.
The random telephone survey also found that Texans are divided over the best way to teach students with limited English skills.
About 38 percent of poll respondents said students should be taught in their native language for a brief time – a year or two – while 36 percent said such instruction should last as long as teachers and parents think is necessary.
Nearly a quarter – 24 percent – said students should be taught only in English.
The telephone survey of 1,014 adults was conducted June 1-12 by Scripps Howard and the Office of Survey Research at the University of Texas. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Support for bilingual education in Texas stands in sharp contrast to the views of California voters, who last month overwhelmingly adopted an initiative to dismantle bilingual education programs. The ballot item was approved by 61 percent of voters.
In Texas, top elected officials have said there will be no similar movement to curtail bilingual education in public schools. Gov. George W. Bush said only those bilingual programs that are ineffective should be abolished.
“If a bilingual program is not teaching children to read and comprehend in English as quickly as possible, it should be eliminated,” he said.
“But if a bilingual program is helping to achieve the goal of teaching children to read and comprehend in English, then we should applaud it and say, “Well done.’ “
Last year, more than 447,000 Texas students – about 12 percent of public school enrollment – were in bilingual education or other special language classes because of limited English proficiency.
In bilingual education classes, students are taught in their native languages until their English skills are sufficient to allow them to move into regular classes – typically two to three years.
Under a state law adopted in 1981, bilingual education must be provided in any district where 20 or more students in one grade level cannot speak English.
Legislators approved that law after U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice ordered Texas schools to offer bilingual education. The order was in response to a 1975 lawsuit filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
MALDEF filed suit in California this month to block implementation of that state’s anti-bilingual education initiative.
Al Kauffman, general counsel for MALDEF in Texas, filed the suit that led to Judge Justice’s order. Mr. Kauffman said the poll results indicate that Texans recognize the importance of bilingual education.
“It shows a better understanding of the educational needs of these students in our state,” Mr. Kauffman said.
“Maybe we have done a better job of showing how bilingual programs work.”
In the Texas Poll, 72 percent of respondents said it was either “important” or “very important” to offer bilingual classes to students who speak little or no English.
In their successful campaign to abolish bilingual education in California, critics said it was ineffective and only delayed acquisition of needed English skills.
Some Texans also have questioned the results of bilingual classes. The poll showed that while 46 percent said the classes were effective, 30 percent said they were ineffective. The remaining respondents had no opinion.
Mr. Kauffman said bills have been filed in previous legislative sessions to curtail or end bilingual education, but none gathered much support.
“Teaching these children initially in their native language is a much better way to educate them than to simply place them in regular classes and expect them to learn English and their academic subjects,” he said, citing numerous studies in support of bilingual education.
He acknowledged that there is a difference of opinion over the most effective way to deliver bilingual education. But he said that does not diminish the classes’ importance for the millions who have had them.
A breakdown of the poll results showed that older Texans (60-94) were more likely than younger Texans (18-29) to think students should be taught only in English.
Among ethnic groups, 87 percent of Hispanics and 90 percent of blacks said it was important for schools to provide bilingual education. The percentage of whites was much lower – 66 percent.
School districts in Texas can be exempted from offering bilingual classes if they are unable to find enough bilingual education teachers. The shortage of bilingual teachers has been a recurring problem in many districts, including Dallas’, which have repeatedly asked for and received exemptions from the state.