Instruction in English alone may not be the perfect method of helping immigrant students into the mainstream. But neither is a system that dragoons children into bilingual programs that reinforce the students’ dependency on their native language and then makes escape impossible.

The Board of Education made this point last year in a scalding report on bilingual education in New York. Its broad conclusion was that new immigrants instructed in English alone performed better than students in bilingual education programs, where comparatively little English is spoken. In a lawsuit based mainly on the board’s report, a Brooklyn parents group charged this week that tens of thousands of immigrant children were being warehoused in bilingual classes well beyond the three years specified in state law, and taught neither English nor anything else very well.

Over the last decade and half, New York City has developed several programs to teach every subject in a range of foreign languages. The most common form of bilingual education involves one English lesson a day, with every other subject taught in the student’s native language. The program presumes that foreign-born students will fall behind if taught in English alone.

Enrollment in programs for students who have been labeled “limited English proficient” — and therefore eligible for Federal funds — has nearly doubled in eight years, from 85,000 students in 1986-87 to 154,000 in 1993-94. A bustling bilingual bureaucracy is now hard at work, often drafting children into the programs whether or not they need them. Indeed, many of the students assigned to bilingual studies are born in this country and speak English better than any other language.

Moreover, once enrolled in a bilingual program, the student is soon trapped in what lawyers for the Bushwick Parents Organization call a “prison.” The students speak so little English each day that they learn the language too slowly to test out of the program within the mandated three years.

According to the Board of Education study, 90 percent of the students who enter bilingual education between sixth and ninth grade fail to move on to regular classes within the required three years. Among students who enter between first and third grade, the failure rate is 75 percent.

The Bushwick parents also complain that children are often kept in bilingual classes despite protests from parents, who want their children mainstreamed. They also fault the State Department of Education for routinely issuing waivers that permit children to remain in the classes beyond the three year limit. The department claims that the waiver process is in keeping with the law and that the suit “has no merit.”

That is too glib an answer for a program that, according to the Board of Education’s own evaluation, is failing. Whatever the merits of bilingual education, the present approach may be harming more students than it helps.

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