Bilingual education cannot please everyone.

Proponents find fault with bilingual programs and how they are put into practice, and opponents do too.

The result: Students are trapped in the cross-fire.

Recently, some Central Florida parents fired a volley, establishing the Parent Leadership Council of Florida Inc. to defend the legal rights of non-English-speaking students. Ironically, the organizers had been appointed by Orange County schools to lead the parent group that focuses on bilingual education.

They were criticized in letters to the editor for demanding “special treatment” for non-English-speaking students. The critics are wrong.

The parent group isn’t asking for special treatment; it is asking for something mandated by federal law. Putting aside the issue of language, bilingual education is about providing all students with equal access to public schools.

In Orange County there are about 15,000 students for whom equal access is a critical issue because they don’t understand English, which is the main language of instruction. Most are Hispanic. And their numbers are growing.

Parent Leadership Council organizers Jose Fernandez, Evelyn Rivera and Radhames Reyes appear to be asking for uniformity of practices, procedures and instruction across the county’s 100 or so schools, as dictated by Florida Department of Education guidelines. Orange County Public Schools is spending nearly $50 million annually on this effort.

That’s a lot of money, but it’s unclear whether the county is getting enough bang for its buck. Under the current system, each school has a lot of leeway in how it handles bilingual education, and that makes the system unaccountable.

But an overarching problem with bilingual education is that it’s hardly about education anymore. It’s about politics and ideology.

For a long time, nobody was checking whether students were becoming proficient in English. In some areas, parents had no say, including on the vital question of pulling their children out.

Bilingual education cannot be a dumping ground used by teachers who don’t want to deal with non-English-speaking students. Nor can it be a secondary womb for students — and parents — looking for shelter from the mainstream.

A recent look at bilingual education in Orange County schools showed that students stayed too long — five years or more. The county wanted to shorten that period to about three years. The opposition put a stop to it, including some members of the parent leadership group. Shortening that period seemed a good idea. Bilingual education should be a stop, not a final destination.

In addition, we have to become more savvy about who really needs bilingual education. The younger you are, the easier it is to learn a new language. Elementary-school students should spend the shortest amount of time in bilingual education. There are instances of very young children picking up a new language quickly.

Middle- and high-school students, for whom learning a new language is more difficult, may need more time. But this may seem too logical for ideologues, who sometimes want to push Hispanic culture at the expense of education.

There will be only one set of losers in this debate: the children. They need to graduate with a diploma, not a certificate. Gaining proficiency in English, the language of the school system, is the only way to do that.

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