The public-school system doesn’t trust immigrants. Some of its leaders want to drag them into the mainstream culture; others want to insulate them with minority-language textbooks and teachers. But few are willing to let the immigrants choose for themselves.

Even the Reagan administration, which claims to support vouchers and tuition tax credits, fails to link choice to issues such as bilingual education. Instead, it has tried to reform the public schools’ existing bilingual programs — meeting defeat in Congress this year for the second time in the past three years.

Defenders of the education monopoly, such as Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers, warn that vouchers would encourage immigrant families to pick schools that do not even teach English. The truth is just the opposite.

When such families have freedom to choose — which is not often — they put their children into classrooms where they can concentrate on learning English as fast as possible. Mr. Shanker deplores bilingual programs for the right reasons: By failing to put enough pressure on children to learn English quickly, they jeopardize the those children’s chances to enter fully into American life. But he fails to note that these programs flourish only in public schools, because of government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs. In a decentralized, free-market system these agencies would be impotent.

The National Catholic Educational Association, the consortium of Catholic schools and colleges, published a report on Hispanics in January. It found that they showed scant enthusiasm for bilingual education as practiced in the public schools: “True bilingual education seemed ineffective, with reports of much resultant confusion . . . . Continuation of teachers’ jobs, sale of educational materials, etc., and not the development of each Hispanic student seemed to be the perceived rationale for continuing bilingual educational programs in the public sector.”

In 1970 one Catholic-school student in 20 was Hispanic; last year, one in 10. But only 4% of these schools offer bilingual education. Sensitive to marketplace demand rather than government regulations, Catholic educators know that few of their Hispanic clients will voluntarily pay for Spanish-language classrooms — even though many buy Spanish-language newspapers.

Today’s Hispanic immigrants have much the same dreams as the Italians and East Europeans who preceded them. They know that their children’s success here requires competence in English. But the political activists who purport to speak for them prefer to mandate bilingual programs.

As a result, the child from Latin America hears and reads his native language in school far more than his predecessor from Europe — or his classmate from Asia. A 1984 study commissioned by the Department of Education found that public schools with high concentrations of Hispanics usually “combined a continued use of Spanish language and English instruction.” But 91% of the schools serving mostly non-Hispanic immigrants used all-English instruction. Department officials see no reason to suppose that this contrast has changed.

After nearly two decades of such specialized “help” for Hispanics, the Census Bureau reports that they are more than twice as likely as Asian-Americans to drop out of high school, and only one-fourth as likely to finish college. In tests of reading skills, the Department of Education has found a wider gap between Hispanic and other students in public schools than in Catholic schools.

The University of Oregon’s Russell Gersten, one of the few scholars to investigate the long-term effects of bilingual schooling in the early elementary grades, followed several groups of minority-language children from elementary school through 12th grade. Those who had received all-English “immersion” in the early grades were only half as likely to be left back as were those who were products of bilingual programs in those same grades. They were also more likely to complete high school.

The Department of Education in effect bribes school districts to use bilingual programs. By law the overwhelming majority of the grants that it hands out under the Bilingual Education Act must be used for bilingual schooling, not for programs that emphasize English.

To its credit, the Reagan administration has repeatedly urged Congress to drop that provision of the statute. (Congress predictably refused.) But to its shame, the administration never seized the opportunity to reform part of the bilingual program through purely administrative action. It could have launched an experiment with funds for innovative projects, giving vouchers to immigrant families in just one or two communities. These families could then have used their vouchers in the public or private schools of their choice — directly testing the Shanker view that assimilation requires a public-school monopoly.

If that view is correct — if the public-school system is the only glue that can hold America together — one would expect graduates of private and religious schools to have weaker civic spirit. Ethnic groups with higher concentrations of such graduates, such as Irish-Americans, would boast fewer soldiers and statesmen. Does anyone seriously claim that?

On the other hand, sometimes immigrants are right to resist assimilation. Consider the Vietnamese-American students in Arlington, Va., interviewed by Washington’s Center for Applied Linguistics. They said they were “horrified” at their American-born classmates’ behavior, “such as talking back to teachers, telling a teacher to ‘shut up,’ talking in class, and putting their feet on a desk.”

Far better than the public-school leaders who try to control their decisions, immigrants know the difference between upward and downward acculturation. All they need to put that knowledge into practice is the voucher system. The right kind of assimilation will come with freedom.

Mr. Uzzell is an editorial writer for the Scripps Howard News Service.

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