Bilingual Education at Heart of Debate over LEP Pupils

For the past year, Arizonans have been engaged in a vigorous debate about the programs we employ for limited English proficient (LEP) students. This debate has been going on for decades, but has become less civil these past few months. At the heart of the debate is bilingual education.

Passions run high among both supporters and opponents of bilingual education – so high that facts and reason are drowned out by the emotion.

Last summer, I convened a task force to study LEP programs with the goal of determining what works and why, and what doesn’t work. Our intent was to bring together those who supported existing programs and those who favored reform. What we ended up with was a task force heavily weighted in favor of bilingual education and a few who favored the elimination of bilingual education. Naturally, there was deep disagreement.

During these meetings, I was asked what my position and recommendations were. I also heard repeatedly at these meetings and elsewhere that I favored the elimination of bilingual education; I was against bilingualism; I was against diversity; and so on. As I have tried to point out, all these positions attributed to me are false.

I spelled out my philosophy at the first Tucson meeting. I believe strongly that the acquisition of English – reading and writing proficiently in English – is critically important for an LEP student to meet the academic standards and raise achievement levels.

My concern is that even in the most successful programs, the gap in achievement between children in bilingual or ESL programs and native speakers of English is 20 percentile points, and it’s unacceptable. What I have been searching for is the best way to get the LEP student to proficiency in English. The meetings we held, while informative and useful, did not unveil a clear solution.

The Department of Education released its 1999 annual report to the Legislature on the status of bilingual and ESL programs, and the findings are troublesome. According to data submitted by school districts and schools, less than 5 percent of all LEP students exited programs last year and less than 12 percent of reassessed LEP students exited programs. Both figures are dismal.

While it is true that students in bilingual programs scored somewhat higher than students in ESL programs, the achievement levels remain unsatisfactory. In addition, 75 percent of those exiting programs are exiting in four years or less.

Given everything I have learned, I will recommend to the Legislature the following:

* Students in LEP programs should be there because their parents chose these programs.

* Students in LEP programs should be reassessed for proficiency every year.

* Because 75 percent are exiting programs in under four years, we should establish a four year limit on state funding for a student to participate in an LEP program.

* A hard deadline should be established for the submittal of data by school districts and individual schools and failure to meet that deadline could result in loss of funds.

Finally, let me say that it will be impossible to solve this problem without listening to people who have legitimate concerns. If supporters of bilingual education simply classify those who disagree with them as people with malevolent intent toward immigrants, people who have cultural biases with no concern for children, this problem will never be solved.

By contrast, if opponents of bilingual education are unwilling to accept that some bilingual education programs work for some children and remain committed to the outright elimination of the program, this problem will never be solved. That says little for us as policymakers and is a tragic loss for the 112,000 students currently struggling to become more proficient in English.

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