One of the first things most newcomers to the U.S. do is learn to speak English. But it could take a little longer for those landing in New Jersey, where bureaucrats decide who gets to be taught in English and who doesn’t. Lately, Spanish-speaking immigrants in Princeton have concluded they don’t like the bilingual bureaucracy’s decisions. The parents wonder why their children alone are required to enroll in a program separating them from the student mainstream — the English-speaking world.

One mother, whose remarks were reported in the Princeton Packet, a community paper, told of her hopes when the family moved from Argentina that the children would integrate and learn English — and of her dismay on learning that instead they were to be segregated by language and culture. Another told of having her two children, both born in the U.S., put into bilingual classes without her permission and kept there for two years.

According to New Jersey law, if there are 20 or more students in a district who speak the same language and who have limited English proficiency, they must enter a bilingual program, regardless of their parents’ or their own wishes. The state law (adopted in 1975) requires only that parents be notified of their child’s placement in the bilingual program. The right of choosing one’s own language wasn’t much advanced when an “appeal” process was later tacked on which in theory allows for ways to get a child released from bilingual classes: a process so byzantine that it would discourage the most determined and self-assured parent, immigrant or native-born.

Some parents, to be sure, approve of the bilingual classes. The parents who object do so in part because of their concern (which many educators consider well-founded) that bilingual education retards academic progress. Some in Princeton are so anxious to keep their children from being placed in a bilingual program that they conceal the fact that the language spoken at home is Spanish.

Above all, the issue that has roused the Latino parents is their lack of choice — and the attitude exemplified in the comment of the bilingual teacher who told a school board that giving parents a choice might sound logical but that parents of many bilingual students “don’t really understand the program. . . .” We suspect that the parents understand the program very well — well enough to know when they are getting short shrift and condescension from the entrenched bureaucracy running it. The parents also know it is far from easy to extricate a child from the bilingual program, once placed in one.

The dispute in Princeton relates to a broader issue gaining resonance around the country. To what extent are parents to be permitted a say in the way schools educate their children? Beyond the hot issue of student achievement levels, we suspect a lot of the outside pressure relates directly to the way the schools establishment has tried to enlarge its franchise. After all, this is an era that has seen schools put into service as condom-distribution centers.

It’s instructive that the people fighting the establishment in Princeton are immigrants. Our impression is that immigrant parents have little patience with any school policies or theories that seem to divert their children from acquiring the solid academic grounding needed to move forward. Ordering students into a bilingual class sounds like a sure way to create a lot of impatient immigrants.

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