A small band of noisy people managed to take freedom of speech hostage Thursday night.

Most of the audience at a Federalist Society forum expected to hear conservative activist Linda Chavez explain her organization’s challenge to Albuquerque Public Schools’ bilingual education programs.

A few bilingual education supporters, including leaders from the SouthWest Organizing Project and New Mexico Vecinos United, denied them that opportunity by spewing out a constant barrage of verbal attacks. That kind of behavior should be unanimously condemned.

Chavez heads the Center for Equal Opportunity, the organization paying for a lawsuit that seeks to eliminate APS’ bilingual education programs. Whether or not one agrees with her, it’s worthwhile hearing Chavez’s perspective in the debate over the effectiveness of bilingual education.

What hecklers might have been forced to consider, had they listened, is that bilingual education all too often fails its students by not giving them enough instruction in English to succeed academically. Could there be a connection with the high Hispanic dropout rate?

They might also have heard that Spanish-language students in this country are treated differently than any other non-English speaking group. Non-Spanish speaking immigrants typically are put into English immersion classes — the quickest route to learning English.

Chavez, no stranger to criticism, took the barrage of insults and heckling from the moment she started her speech until she realized she could not get a word in without someone in the audience shouting her down.

To her credit she remained calm and offered herself up to anyone willing to have a civil dialogue at a later time or place. But what a pity that Albuquerque residents lost the opportunity to hear from a native daughter who is among the country’s leading conservative thinkers and advocates against the status quo in bilingual education.

The lawsuit is expected to go to trial in January, and APS’ non-English speaking APS students will be the winners. The district has no single bilingual agenda, no way to measure the success of its many programs and no accountability.

School board president Richard Toledo summed it up in a recent comment: “Because of the size of the district, I don’t think anyone has a handle on what the district is doing with its bilingual program.”

If a lawsuit is what it takes to change this situation, then so be it.

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