Not a racial issue

Bilingual education debate must be conducted on merits

In a perfect world, voters wouldn’t have to decide whether bilingual education or English immersion is the best way to teach children of immigrants in our schools.

Education experts would just do what’s best for the children. They would do what works. In other words, they would do what they’re paid fat salaries to do.

But there is powerful evidence that that’s just not happening and, consequently, non-English speaking kids who already face a high education hurdle are further hampered by the widespread use of bilingual education. Study after study, some going back a quarter century, show bilingual education just doesn’t work very well and may even do more harm than good.

But it persists. There’s a ton of federal money behind bilingual education, and it goes hand in hand with public education’s current love affair with multiculturalism — which is supposed to be an antidote for racism but is cultivating an insidious form of segregation.

Those who criticize bilingual education not only buck an education establishment that gets a lot of money to perpetuate it, but also risk being branded racists.

It’s a tough combination to overcome. But Ron Unz did it in California with the success of his ballot initiative outlawing bilingual education, and he’s thrown his weight behind a similar initiative here in Arizona.

Unz and U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., who’s been one of Congress’ most outspoken opponents of bilingual education, held a press conference in the Valley a few days ago to boost the “English for the Children Initiative,” which is expected to make the November ballot.

Salmon tried during the press conference to defuse the racism argument: “There are a lot of people that are going to come forward tomorrow and say Matt Salmon is a racist. All I can say is the results in California have been phenomenal.”

Let’s hope the debate here focuses on facts rather than emotions and personal attacks. One indisputable fact is that far too many children of immigrants are dropping out of school. Another is that dropouts are far more likely to get into trouble and far less likely to get good-paying jobs.

We all have a stake in improving the success rate of all children in our schools, and the challenge is especially daunting for kids who enter the classroom with little or no English proficiency. Although bilingual education, which spread rapidly throughout the American public school system in the 1960s, was supposed to raise the success rate of non-English speaking children, its persistent champions have little hard evidence to show.

A major study for the U.S. Office of Education as far back as 1974 concluded that the Bilingual Education Act “does not appear to be having a consistent, significant impact in meeting its goals set forth in the legislation.”

The New York Times reported in February 1999 that a review of 72 studies found “no consist research support for transitional bilingual education as a superior instructional practice.?.?.?.”

A study by the San Jose Mercury News, sparked by Unz’s initiative outlawing bilingual education in California, confirmed that children of immigrants performed better in a variety of subjects when placed in English immersion rather than in bilingual programs. Immersion students scored in the 35th percentile on reading tests, while bilingual students scored in the 19th percentile. Likewise, immersion students’ math scores were in the 43rd percentile, while bilingual students’ were in the 30th percentile.

Similarly, an Arizona Department of Education study released in February 1999 found only about 4 percent of children with limited English proficiency had moved from bilingual to regular classrooms the previous year, even though $361 million a year was being pumped into bilingual programs.

Of course, the more kids who move from bilingual to regular classrooms, the less federal bilingual dollars the schools receive. Which, to put it mildly, is hardly an incentive to succeed.

Indeed, the monetary incentive is to keep kids in bilingual programs year after year after year. Which is precisely what is happening.

So kudos to Ron Unz and Matt Salmon for getting the English for the Children Initiative on the November ballot. Let the debate begin.

And let it be a clean debate, on the merits. Anyone tempted to accuse proponents or racism should keep in mind another telling fact: Public support for California’s initiative crossed all racial and ethnic lines.

This isn’t about race. It’s about results.

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