In cities across the country, voters and enlightened parents have finally realized that bilingual education spells failure in any language. One by one, they are doing away with it. But in New York, with the nation’s largest school system, the movement remains deeply entrenched, a monument to ethnic politics gone awry. If immigrants in the most diverse city in the world are ever to get their fair share of the American pie, that must change.

Fortunately, the federal mandate that created this educational monolith contains an escape hatch. The city has only to find the will to open it. Despite test scores and studies that prove bilingual education to be the worst of any method to lift non-English speakers into the mainstream, the Board of Education continues to waste $46 million a year to keep it. And the state Education Department grants waivers each year to tens of thousands of students who fail to reach English proficiency within the required three years.

It does not have to be so.

Two years ago, California voters approved Proposition 227, replacing bilingual ed with an English-immersion curriculum. Naysayers predicted catastrophe. Instead, the state’s 1.4 million immigrant students are not only learning English faster, but they have improved in other subjects. Twenty-eight percent of California second-graders are reading at grade level now, compared with 19% last year; their math proficiency has jumped from 27% to 41%.

“I thought the change would hurt kids, but the exact opposite has occurred,” said Ken Noonan, founder of the California Association of Bilingual Educators. “The kids began soaking up English like sponges and are not abandoning their native languages.”

In Arizona, voters are expected to ban bilingual education when they go to the polls Nov. 7. And in Colorado and Massachusetts, forces are gathering to launch similar initiatives.

But in New York, bilingual education prevails. Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer has mixed feelings. But this much is clear, he said: “Bilingual education has become a bullet in the cultural wars.” From City Hall to the Albany statehouse, pols have yet to find the moxie to stand up to the ethnicity-first crowd.

A key member of said crowd is Hector Gesualdo, head of Aspira of New York, the Hispanic advocacy group that forced this disaster on the city a quarter-century ago. “Bilingual education is as important to Latinos today as it was 25 years ago,” he said, adding that his group would fight any attempt to change it.

But, thankfully, support among immigrant families is waning. A recent poll by the Hispanic Federation, an umbrella organization of not-for-profit groups, revealed that only 47% of the city’s Latinos favor bilingual education. That’s down from 53% last year. And recently, the Industrial Areas Foundation, a citywide network of churches, homeowner associations and neighborhood groups, met with Mayor Giuliani and Schools Chancellor Harold Levy, encouraging them to scale back bilingual ed.

Randy Mastro, chairman of a mayoral task force on the issue, says he will release a report this month calling for just that. He wants the Board of Education to introduce English-immersion classes, in which students receive no instruction in their native languages. But, sadly, the task force is not expected to call for doing away with bilingual education.

Concerned about how little English bilingual ed students learn, the state Board of Regents this year doubled the amount of time they spend in English classes. But, for most, that translates to only two hours a day. And, instead of rescuing failing students, state educrats extend kids’ time in the program beyond the three-year limit whenever they score below the 40th percentile on a language assessment test. Officials say the rules give them no choice.

And don’t hold your breath for a solution from the state Legislature. “There are some real problems with how bilingual education is applied,” Assemblyman Steve Sanders (D-Manhattan) conceded. “But I am not pretending to tell you exactly what the fix is.” When you consider that Sanders is chairman of the Education Committee, that’s pretty disheartening.

But there is hope. And, ironically, it is contained in the federal consent decree that mandated bilingual education. Article 14 says the court retains jurisdiction over the ruling “for all purposes, including the entry of additional orders as may be necessary or proper.” Which means that if the city can show “a significant change in circumstances,” it can appeal for relief. The Giuliani administration must do so. Pronto. The Board of Ed’s own analysis, released just last week, confirms what has been known for years: Immigrant youngsters fare worse in bilingual ed.

That ought to be “significant” enough for any fair-minded judge.

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