Few issues stir more passionate debate than bilingual education. Supporters argue that non-English- speaking children need as long as seven years to make the full linguistic transition from their native language. Opponents claim that bilingual education condemns the student to second-class status.
Up until now, supporters have won most of the battles. But because of events in California, that trend could gradually be reversed. Two years after California voters ended bilingual education, a million Spanish-speaking students who were immersed in English-only curriculum have done better than expected on standardized tests. The California test scores are expected to have a big impact in other states, especially those with large Spanish-speaking populations. For instance, this fall Arizona voters will decide whether to end bilingual education, as California did. In Colorado, where the anti-bilingual education forces narrowly missed getting a similar measure on the ballot, the issue is far from dead. Even in states such as Massachusetts and New York, anti-bilingual forces are gaining momentum.
Opponents of bilingual education make valid arguments, and the California results so far are impressive. But both sides of the bilingual argument in other states could learn from the philosophy emerging in San Antonio and South Texas, where many parents and educators support teaching all students in two languages. A curriculum that allows Spanish speakers to learn English and English speakers to learn Spanish will allow them all to better cope with a rapidly changing world. Especially since the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed, there has been a tremendous need for bilingual people almost everywhere, not just in Texas. Educating all students to speak and understand two languages should be the goal to ensure that this nation would not face a shortage of such people.