ON Oct. 19, shortly before the national election, new amendments to Title VIII of the Bilingual Education Act were quietly signed into law. For the multitude of jobholders who compose the bilingual establishment, these amendments permit a longer ride on the gravy train at taxpayers’ expense; for the children who hoped to enter the English-speaking mainstream of America they are another low blow. But if Congress decides to offer new, wiser amendments, these children may still have a fighting chance.
Congress will have to challenge a powerful political movement that offers lucrative rewards to its entrenched jobholders. At the same time it will find itself in the difficult position of confronting an educational method barely understood by the general public beyond the faintly favorable ring of its name.
Bilingual education requires that children who speak a foreign language at home use that language for instruction in American schools and have some part of the day for English instruction. Often their English lessons constitute no more than two hours a week. They not only study academic subjects in their home language, but they are taught elements of their own ethnic culture in our schools as well. It has been an expensive program. Last year, $138 million was spent to teach only 182,000 students.
Another method of instruction, English as a second language, teaches English using English alone as the medium. It is vastly cheaper to provide and has an excellent track record, especially for speed in teaching English. But this method, along with other alternatives, has been almost suppressed by the bilingual establishments and Hispanic interest groups with congressional clout. Out of the $176 million the new legislation authorizes, a mere 10 percent of it can be used for English as a second language or for any other method.
These amendments encourage rather than curb the profusion of ”maintenance programs,” open-ended programs that have kept children for many years in bilingual education before taking a single subject in English. With the legislation’s provision for teaching an additional language other than English, teachers and administrators could keep children endlessly in bilingual programs by ruling that they had not yet mastered their native language, even if they had already mastered English.
For many years now, local school districts accepting federal funds for bilingual education have been enduring the imposition of absurd requirements which the new amendments do not alleviate. Although three-fourths or more of bilingual programs are in Spanish, local educators have been required to provide programs in a bewildering multitude of languages, including Eskimo and the tribal languages of American Indians. Chicago school districts, for example, provide instruction not only in Spanish but in 17 other languages, including Assyrian, Gujarati, Indic, and Serbo-Croatian. Trying to find qualified teachers in some of these languages, even though the law does not require them to know English, has stretched the ingenuity of local school administrators.
Despite the stranglehold that bilingual education advocates have placed on local school districts, there is no convincing evidence, after all, that bilingual education works. In 1980, a Carter administration study conducted by Dr. Keith Baker and Adrienne De Kanter of the Department of Education found that transitional bilingual education had worked in some settings, but had been found ineffective and even harmful in others. In some school districts, English-as-a-second-language programs and structured English immersion programs had been successful. The Baker-De Kanter report, later disputed by Hispanic interest groups, concluded that transitional bilingual education was only one of several approaches schools could use. Similar findings were published in 1982 by Iris Rotberg in the Harvard Educational Review.
The new law will severely restrict school districts in choosing effective educational methods. Its $176 million authorization will provide an even greater windfall for the bureaucrats, textbook publishers, teachers, researchers, editors, and clerks who profit from the bilingual education bonanza and seek to perpetuate it. But more important, children whose parents speak a foreign language at home may in many cases find their entry into the English-speaking world hindered, delayed, or prevented.
Instead, let us hope that Congress will offer amendments that will restore freedom to local school districts to provide the swiftest possible transition to English for America’s new, young citizens.
Joan Keefe is a member of the National Advisory Council on Bilingual Education.