Bust the Bilingual Establishment

This space has looked before at the way our modern education equation seems to exclude parents, with important decisions devolving to school and government bureaucrats. Now a group from New York’s Brooklyn, the Bushwick Parents Organization, has gone to court to protest a particularly insidious form of parent exclusion: the exclusion worked by the bilingual establishment against parents who want their children to learn in English.

New York Education law states that “English shall be the language of instruction” in public schools. Under federal, state and city law, kids who cannot speak the language may spend what is supposed to be a maximum of three years in bilingual programs, with six years for exceptions.

Yet the Bushwick reality is different. Documents filed with the case show that at the five intermediate (junior high) schools in Bushwick’s District 32, fewer than 5% of students in Spanish-only classes leave every year. Parents found that “a sizable number” of kids “remain segregated in bilingual education for more than the six-year outer limit.” The Board of Ed’s own data show that citywide 90% of kids who start bilingual programs at two junior high levels do not leave them after three years. As for kindergartners — kids the right age for picking up a new language — nearly half of them stay in the bilingual ghetto for more than three years. And that ghetto is growing: Last year some 154,000 New York kids were enrolled in some kind of bilingual ed program, up 65% in seven years.

The Bushwick parents document an even more egregious fact: The Latin establishment at their schools forces English-speaking kids born in America into Spanish-language traps in the name of mush-minded diversity goals. An affidavit filed this week by grandparent Ada Jiminez contains the following lines: “My grandson attended Head Start in English, and did not speak any Spanish at that time. However, when he reached kindergarten, the school decided to place him in a bilingual program. . . . I am very frustrated with the failure of the bilingual education program to teach my grandson either English or Spanish.”

Exhibit A in the case’s literature is a consumer’s guide to local schools. The guide, put out for the benefit of local families by a nonprofit known as the Public Education Association, contains the following report on a junior high, I.S. 111: “According to parents, instead of restricting the bilingual education classes to students who are non-native speakers of English, I.S. 111 routinely places native English speakers in bilingual classes because they have Hispanic surnames. New York parents in theory have the option to take their children out of bilingual education. When they make that attempt, many bilingual teachers and school administrators accuse them of not respecting their cultural heritage.” Reviews of other intermediate schools carried like comment.

Here’s the view of Marino de la Cruz, one of the parents missing from this picture. Mr. de la Cruz, a waiter at the St. Moritz Hotel, is father of Blaine and Massiel, both born in the U.S. and both, he reports, “better in English than Spanish.” Life in general would improve for his kids, he says, if they weren’t trapped in mostly Spanish language classes: “They could handle it better if they had monolingual classes.” Mr. de la Cruz and other parents fear bilingual ed grammar school will reduce their kids’ ability to perform in high school. The data show their fear is legitimate.

Other factors have built up the walls of the bilingual ghetto. One is a qualification rule that creates a vicious cycle. To “test out” of bilingual classes, Hispanic kids must score in the 40th percentile or better on an English reading and comprehension test known as the LAB. But while they’re stuck in a program that offers as little as one hour of English a day, they have, understandably enough, a harder time moving toward that 40th percentile level. The rule also fails to distinguish between kids who can’t speak English and kids who are just poor students: No matter what your problem, if your name is foreign and you have a foreign-language speaker at home, you need to do better than 40% of kids your age to avoid the “honor” of bilingual ed.

What drives the bureaucracy? Money, in part. New York, city and state, spends $1.2 billion a year on bilingual ed kids. Much of that, of course, would go to them even if their courses were in English. But schools do get more state and federal dollars per kid for bilingual classes than they do for regular classes. So they have an incentive to move children into the ghetto.

It’s a shame, because the regular classes could use the cash. New York, for example, has made a big issue of bleating on about how budget squeezes prevent it from adding student teachers or teacher aides to help in one-teacher kindergartens. We suspect cutting back on bilingual aid would provide some funds for teachers’ aides — even a few who speak enough Spanish to run through the alphabet with a Hispanic kid.

Yet cities still tend to ignore groups like the Bushwick Parents’ Organization. Close to two million American children are in some form of bilingual education. Getting them through and out of these programs in the fashion their parents desire should be a national priority. Otherwise we’re delivering something other than what they expected when they headed toward what they’d heard was the land of E Pluribus Unum.

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