Twenty-five years after the Board of Education promised a federal judge it would provide non-English-speaking students with “programs in which they can effectively participate and learn,” the bilingual education program has evolved into a dead end on the road to the American Dream.

More than half the 177,000 students identified as Limited English Proficient can’t read and write English after three years in special classes. Many also are failing math and science, which bilingual-education students take in their native languages. Yet instead of scrapping this failed program, school officials automatically place immigrant students in bilingual ed classes and keep most there far beyond the three-year state limit.

Forced on the Board of Ed by a consent decree obtained in 1974 by the Hispanic advocacy group Aspira, bilingual ed is one of two competing teaching methods. The other is English as a Second Language, in which courses are taught only in English.

You don’t have to be a linguist to figure out what most studies show: Students learn English faster when they are taught only in English. But the misnamed bilingual program is kept alive by a vocal ethnic-exploitation claque.

As City University Chairman Herman Badillo put it: “Politicians know they will get big applause if they stand before a Latino audience and say that bilingual education is the only way to preserve Spanish language and culture. What they don’t say is that children are at a tremendous disadvantage because they are not learning English.”

Governed by a tangle of consent decrees, court orders, state law and Board of Ed rules, the program has grown into a $46 million-a-year monolith supporting 4,219 teachers and administrators. Large numbers of the teachers are uncertified ? though, amazingly, the board can’t say exactly how many. The program is run by individual school districts and principals with only the slightest supervision from 110 Livingston St.

Last year, city Controller Alan Hevesi complained that no one bothers to monitor the progress of non-English-speaking kids and that the Board of Education has never determined which of the two teaching methods is superior. Last month, the board finally released a report:

89% of non-English speakers who entered in ninth grade could not pass a standard English test three years later. Of those who entered sixth grade in 1992, 55% failed English and did not graduate last year.

Nearly one in four elementary school pupils couldn’t test out of language-support programs eight years after they entered.

Students in English as a Second Language classes fared significantly better. Among kindergarten students, 84% in ESL were mainstreamed within three years, compared with 73% in bilingual ed.

These disturbing findings should come as no surprise. Bilingual education treats English as an afterthought.

The Aspira consent decree mandates that the Board of Ed teach all “substantive courses” ? math, science, social studies ? in Spanish; that it “reinforce and develop the child’s use of Spanish” and that it “introduce Spanish to those [Spanish surnamed] children entering the school system.” A 1977 court settlement expanded the mandate to all language groups — currently a total of 140.

Regulations governing the program are byzantine. The state mandates bilingual classes in schools where 20 or more students in the same grade speak the same language. Inexplicably, the Board of Ed has expanded the requirement to schools where 15 students speak the same language in two back-to-back grades ? i.e., only 7 1/2 students per grade.

The state Education Department makes this bad situation worse by failing to enforce its requirement that students be mainstreamed within three years. It routinely grants waivers to about 65,000 students, dooming them to a dead-end education.

After watching children fail year after year, parents finally are beginning to clamor for change. Typical is Elizabeth Pena, whose 8-year-old daughter is repeating second grade in the bilingual program. “The teacher informed me that my daughter was getting 15 minutes of English a day,” she said last week in a meeting with Mayor Giuliani and Schools Chancellor Harold Levy. “I was sending her to school to lose one language and never gain the other.”

Frustrated, Pena said she has taken a second job so she could send her daughter to private school. “I don’t want to see her confused anymore,” she said.

Tomorrow: Ending bilingual education.

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