Members of the teachers’ union in Los Angeles voted recently to seek abolition of so-called transitional bilingual education in the city’s schools. The vote delighted supporters of California’s strong English-first movement. Opponents, particularly Hispanic teachers, were distressed at what seemed like xenophobia on the part of the majority of teachers. In fact, the vote reflects a potentially healthy step forward in this complex debate.

The Los Angeles schools have more than 150,000 non-English-speaking students. Most speak Spanish but the district also serves youngsters who speak 77 other languages. A California law that expired in June required Los Angeles to use transitional bilingual education: teaching children all subjects in their native tongue while they learn English. After they become proficient in English, the children take the English-taught curriculum.

New York City’s schools, with about 86,000 children of limited English proficiency, also use the transitional bilingual approach – also to comply with state law, and a court decree. Such laws and court orders reflect a laudable concern that immigrant children not be humiliated in class, and that they have access to education. But over the years, teachers rightly complain, legal prescriptions for the transitional approach have grown too rigid.

The Federal bilingual education law reserves all but 4 percent of the Government money for programs that employ transitional bilingual education. Secretary of Education William Bennett has tried, so far without success, to have the 4 percent cap lifted so school systems can experiment, as the Federal law originally intended. The Los Angeles teachers, for example, favor the immersion method -children are exposed only to English and learn it, sometimes painfully, out of necessity.

Each method has advantages and drawbacks. Transitional bilingual education may be less emotionally wrenching and allows a child to advance in other subjects while learning English. Los Angeles officials say it takes three years, on average, for a child to be integrated into the regular English curriculum. But more than one distressed parent elsewhere has complained, too late, that his or her child was carried along in ”transitional” bilingual classes for years instead of being integrated into the English-speaking mainstream.

Immersion can be emotionally difficult, but it works for the Army and at dozens of private language institutes. Whether it can work in a public school setting is unclear. And it requires full-time concentration on language until the child is competent to start studying other subjects in English.

The Los Angeles teachers’ vote has no legal force; it simply sets out a union’s bargaining position. But Sally Peterson, the third grade teacher who led the referendum drive, hopes the vote ”will give a signal to the public that many educators have serious reservations about the transitional method.” The expiration of the California law mandating it, she said, offers an opportunity for fruitful experimentation. That sounds less like xenophobia and more like common sense.

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