Schools Chancellor Harold Levy’s ambitious plan for revamping bilingual education – which calls for recruiting thousands more specialized teachers and extending the school day – is being touted as the biggest reform to the program since it was foisted on school children by a federal consent decree 25 years ago. Problem is, bilingual ed does not need reform. It needs elimination.

The chancellor’s recommendations, which would add $75 million to the school budget, come despite Board of Education data showing that bilingual education is the worst way to teach kids with limited English proficiency. Retaining it, not to mention expanding it, would be throwing good money – lots of it – after bad.

The just-released report by the Mayoral Task Force on Bilingual Education, of which Levy is a member, contains page after page of Board of Ed stats documenting the program’s failure:

More than half the students enrolled do not transfer to regular classes within the state-mandated three years. Of those who start in kindergarten, 73% make the cutoff. Only 58% of second-graders and 43% of third-graders are mainstreamed on time. Many languish seven years in the program.

By contrast, students taught by the Board of Ed’s alternative method, English as a Second Language, fare much better: 84% of kindergartners, 75% of second-graders and 70% of third-graders make the state deadline. That’s not surprising. Unlike kids in bilingual classes, who are taught almost exclusively in their native languages, these youngsters learn exclusively in English.

Eliminating bilingual ed requires action from the federal courts and from Albany. But pols seem to think the program is sacred to their ethnic constituents, especially Hispanics. Recent studies show otherwise. A Zogby International poll completed last month found that 74% of New Yorkers surveyed favored an all-English curriculum for students who are not fluent in English. The figure was even higher – 84% – in Queens, the city’s most ethnically diverse borough.

Additionally, a 1998 study by the nonpartisan group Policy Agenda showed that, nationwide, 66% of Hispanic parents and 75% of all foreign-born parents want their children to learn English “as quickly as possible, even if this means they fall behind in other subjects.”

All this should make immigrant parents wonder why the mayor’s task force did not call for scrapping bilingual ed completely. And why the chancellor wants to boost by 44% the price tag for teaching their children, instead of redirecting bilingual ed’s $46 million budget to something that actually works. Like English as a Second Language or the one true reform Levy recommends be offered to parents as an option – intensive English, i.e., immersion.

The most important recommendation in the 30-page task force report is buried in a single sentence: “An intensive review of both the Aspira Consent Decree [which mandates bilingual ed] and New York State law should be completed to determine what changes in the binding legal structures surrounding bilingual education programs in New York City should be undertaken.”

That – and not regurgitating well-known data – is how the mayoral panel should have spent the past two years. Precious time has been lost, but it’s not too late. Breaking bilingual education’s legal stranglehold should be the Board of Ed’s prime goal – not expanding a program that cheats immigrant kids of their American dream.

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