Follow California's lead: Overhaul bilingual ed

THE original goal of bilingual education was to create equal opportunity for foreign-speaking students. Getting rid of the program might be the best way to reach that goal.

Two years after California replaced bilingual education with intensive immersion in English, test scores for foreign-speaking students are rising fast. This doubles the pressure on Washington to reform the many well-meaning habits and financial incentives within public schools that keep foreign-speaking students separate and unequal.

Here are two changes to consider: First, create a one-year rule for foreign-speaking students, with one year of intensive English assistance before mainstreaming. Second, pay school districts an automatic two-year grant for each foreign-speaking student, rather than rewarding districts for keeping as many students in bilingual education for as long as possible.

Bilingual education started in the 1960s as one of many programs to channel resources to students with special needs. Unfortunately, when districts get more money for students labeled as “bilingual,” they have a serious incentive to keep students that way. They also create a built-in advocacy group–bilingual education teachers–whose jobs unfairly depend on the label.

Washington state rewards districts for each child labeled bilingual with about $550 a year, or about $15,000 extra for each bilingual classroom. That money is hard to let go.

Washington’s programs are called “transitional bilingual assistance,” designed to move students to mainstream classrooms in three or fewer years. Three years is a long time in a K-12 education. What’s worse, more than a fifth of bilingual students get stuck in those classrooms for four or more years. More stay tracked in unchallenging classes, oceans away from a college-prep curriculum.

Olympia millionaire Ron Taber earned harrumphs during his 1996 race against state Superintendent of Instruction Terry Bergeson with his oddly worded condemnation of bilingual education, saying that Spanish was the language of doormen, dishwashers and fruitpickers. Bergeson and the teachers’ union defended the program, but support kept eroding nationwide.

In June 1998, the passage of Proposition 227 by California voters–including 40 percent of Hispanics–prompted Bergeson to say it was time to “re-examine” bilingual education here. That re-examination has been slow in coming. Bergeson will report to the Legislature this December.

Washington cannot ignore the news from California. Though simultaneous reforms in California make it hard to pinpoint cause and effect, school districts that switched to English immersion performed strikingly better than districts that sought waivers to teach the same old way.

Dissatisfaction with second-class education keeps growing, along with pressure to exempt bilingual students from state tests. Bergeson deserves credit for resisting such pressure: That’s not reform, that’s fiddling with the numbers.

Real changes to the structure and financing of bilingual education, however, could help foreign-speaking students through the interminable lines on education’s Ellis Island.

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