IF YOU WANTED the ultimate in job security, what would you do? How about joining (or helping to found) a corps of officials who could make themselves so indispensable to their clients that they couldn’t be fired. Such a corps would make sure a) that none of those they worked with would ever be able to do without their continued instruction and leadership; b) that they could not be replaced except by one of the people they had trained; and c) that the public that employed them remained ignorant of the whole scheme. Could it be done?
Why not? All you would have to do is prevent your clients from ever becoming fluent speakers of the language of those in power, an easy thing to arrange in a society of immigrants, and you could keep them subjugated forever. They would have no choice but to back you as you make special demands for the minority culture, because only you would be able to tell them what is happening outside the ghetto. Short of preventing them from reading and writing at all (which is one way black slavery was maintained in the American South), there is no more foolproof method of securing your own power indefinitely against all comers.
It can be done. It has been done. Now it is being done again, but not by slavemasters. This time it’s being done by teachers, with the aid of the federal government and the education establishment. The program is called ” bilingual education”; and if you ask, you will be told that it is a program to ensure that members of linguistic minorities are educated without undue damage to their egos or their culture. In actuality, it is an employment security system for “bilingual” teachers and bureaucrats.
Too harsh a judgment? Must we not help all students to reach English literacy as best they can? Surely, but there is a different program, “English as a second language,” which achieves this goal more completely, in less time and for less money.
Parents of city schoolchildren are supposed to have a choice between ESL and bilingual education, but the parents can’t speak English very well, and to get their children into ESL or out of bilingual classes they must make the request to none other than the “bilingual education coordinator” of the district where their child attends school.
But, surely, only students with a great need for bilingual education are put in such classes in the first place. Not quite. Entering first graders are automatically placed in bilingual education classes in this city on the basis of scores on the “Language Assessment Battery” or LAB. The test is given in both English and the native language – Spanish for every child with an “Hispanic surname.” If your child’s score is below a certain level (different for each language), he or she is placed in a Spanish bilingual class.
But the test is given to children who, like most kindergartners, do not yet know how to read – in any language. And the test designed for kids finishing first grade is given to those who have only just entered first grade. Naturally, enormous numbers find themselves “automatically” placed in bilingual classes, removable only when the parent sees the bilingual coordinator personally.
The LAB test was imposed by memorandum number 7 from the Board of Education’s Office of Educational Assessment in August, 1985. Coordinators were appointed in every district. Numbers of “entitled” students are rising (95,720 this year), many graduates of our high schools speak Spanish better than English after years of bilingual education, the federal money is rolling in (more than $ 47 million last year, with an added $ 20 million from the state), and more and more bilingual teachers are being hired (there were 2,467 at last count). Everybody is happy – except many of the students, their parents and those teachers who are still trying to emancipate and empower their students by teaching them English.
I asked bilingual “supervisor” Arthur Nieves of Brooklyn’s Community School District 13 whether a parent really had to make a personal petition to him to take a child out of bilingual education. “Not really,” is all he said; but several parents I’ve spoken with contradict him. However unhappy parents may be with the arrangement, only teachers can make themselves heard. As one of them put it, “The bilingual coordinator of my school has divided the staff and students along ethnic lines and placed every sort of obstacle in the way of parents who want to withdraw their children from bilingual education.” Teachers would say these things more loudly, but the ones I’ve met are afraid to do so. Already the bilingual establishment seems too large to fight.
The liberal and left-wing language used to defend bilingual education has confused the public and silenced its doubts. Ironically, within that silence, a new form of patronage is being forged.
William R. Everdell teaches history at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn Heights. He is the author of “The End of Kings: A History of Republics and Republicans,” and a member of US English, which seeks a constitutional amendment declaring English the official language of the United States.