Federal bullying hinders responsible reform

Like school districts across California, Denver is struggling to deal with the massive failings of bilingual education. Denver parents filed complaints with the federal government in 1994 accusing the school district of shortchanging the 10,000 Hispanic children who were being taught their academic subjects in Spanish.

Among the most glaring problems: A shortage of bilingual teachers meant many students were taught a watered-down curriculum by teacher aides. Meaningful progress evaluations were sketchy, and communication with parents hardly existed.

But instead of copying California’s vote this month to scuttle bilingual education, Denver has adopted a responsible reform model that concentrates on readying bilingual students for regular classes so they aren’t excluded from educational and job opportunities that require fluency in English.

Under the plan, Denver beefs up bilingual-teacher training and funding for supplies. Teachers and parents are given more authority to decide when students are ready to move into regular classes taught in English.

And to keep focused on the goal of learning English, the district approved an approach that’s been promoted by President Clinton: a three-year limit for most students taking classes in Spanish.

So how are Denver’s efforts being rewarded? The Department of Education has found them guilty of discrimination and has turned the matter over to the Justice Department for enforcement. Unless school officials give in to the federal bullying at a negotiating session in early July, they risk losing up to $ 30 million in federal funding.

After more than a year of intimidation by federal bureaucrats, Denver’s educators are standing firm on three key points:

— Classifying students. School officials quite sensibly refuse to assign kids who speak only English to classes taught in Spanish. Amazingly, though, federal education officials insist some students with a Hispanic heritage would be better off taking courses in Spanish — even if they don’t understand a word.

— Parental consent. The Denver program requires parental permission before a child takes bilingual classes. But federal officials insist that parents don’t have the right to remove their children from Spanish classes.

— Time limits. Education Secretary Richard Riley has said that “a goal of learning English within three years is reasonable.” But in Denver’s case, his own employees disagree. They insist that test scores, not teacher evaluations or time limits, must be used to decide when to move students into regular classes.

Denver isn’t the first school district to tangle with federal bureaucrats over the design of their bilingual programs. Using the threat of financial penalties, the Education Department has extracted “voluntary” agreements from 275 school districts now modifying their services to students with limited English.

Though Denver educators have dug in for a fight, they concede they may capitulate, too, rather than lose federal education dollars.

In response to rising national discontent over bilingual education, Clinton has urged school districts to “reform not revoke” the programs.

But Denver’s experience sends a chilling message to school districts that try: Reforming ineffective bilingual programs could cost them their federal funding.

Changes in Denver

Of the 68,000 students in Denver public schools, 13,000 speak limited English, including 10,000 who speak Spanish. Last year, the school board approved several changes to its bilingual education program. These include:

— Placing a three-year time limit on bilingual classes for most students.

— Allowing parents to remove their children from bilingual programs upon request.

— Giving principals and teacher more authority to decide when students are ready to move into English classes.

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