“Why won’t they learn English like everyone else did who came to this country?”

That’s a common complaint about Hispanic immigrants, based on the perception that, unlike previous immigrants, Hispanics want to retain their native language — even insisting that their children be taught in Spanish in public schools. And indeed a huge number of Hispanic children in American public schools — perhaps as many as one million — are being taught to read and write in Spanish before they learn English. Yet most people don’t realize this practice has almost nothing to do with what Hispanic parents want for their children and everything to do with government policy.

For more than 20 years now, politically motivated federal and state policy has dictated that Hispanic youngsters in most school districts be treated differently from other non-English-speaking students. Most Korean, Russian and Chinese immigrant children, for example, receive intensive English instruction, usually for several hours a day, in English-as-a-second-language classes. But Hispanic youngsters, many of whom were born in the U.S., are put into bilingual-education classes instead, where they are likely to hear and speak Spanish most of the day. Is this what Hispanic parents want for their children? Until now, no one cared to ask.

Last month, the Center for Equal Opportunity commissioned a national survey of Hispanic parents to discover what they most want their children to learn in school. A random sample of 600 parents from five cities with large Hispanic populations (Los Angeles, New York, Miami, San Antonio and Houston) participated in the telephone survey, which was conducted in both English and Spanish, depending on each respondent’s preference. The results were overwhelming: Hispanic parents want their children taught English as quickly as possible. They want their children’s lessons for all academic subjects taught in English, so that their children will spend more time hearing and speaking English. And they think learning to read, write and speak English is the single most important goal of education.

The survey asked Hispanic parents: “Should children of Hispanic background living in the United States be taught to read and write Spanish before they are taught English, or should they be taught English as soon as possible?” Nearly two-thirds (63%) said Hispanic students should be taught English as soon as possible, while only one-sixth (16.7%) thought they should learn Spanish first.

Yet bilingual-education advocates claim that Hispanic children must learn to read and write in Spanish first if they are to succeed in eventually mastering a second language. What’s more, many bilingual programs teach not only reading and writing but also most other academic subjects first in Spanish. Nonetheless, there is little solid empirical evidence to suggest that native-language instruction is superior to all-English instruction. Researchers Christine Rossell and Keith Baker have systematically reviewed every existing bilingual-education study that meets minimal academic standards. They report that 78% of program evaluations show native-language instruction to be either no better than (45%) or actually worse than (33%) doing nothing for non-English-speaking children.

When asked to choose which sentiment better reflects their opinion, 81% of Hispanic parents in our survey said “My child should be taught his/her academic courses in English, because he/she will spend more time learning English”; only 12% said “My child should be taught his/her academic courses in Spanish, even if it means he/she will spend less time learning English.” Although bilingual-education advocates never present the choice this starkly, children who spend time in classrooms where Spanish is the language of instruction will necessarily spend fewer hours hearing and speaking English.

And as anyone who has ever struggled with learning a new language knows, the time spent actually practicing it is absolutely critical. In 1988 the U.S. Department of Education surveyed parents whose children were enrolled in federal programs for students with limited English and found that 78% of Mexican parents and 82% of Cuban parents opposed teaching “language minority children a non-English language if it means less time for teaching them English.” Despite its own findings, the department chose not to change federal policy to reflect parents’ wishes. It did not even publicize the results of the survey.

Hispanic parents in our poll ranked “learning to read, write and speak English” as their top education goal. Overall, 51% of parents surveyed ranked this first among education goals; a higher percentage of parents interviewed in Spanish (52%) than in English (45%) did so. Hispanic parents who spoke English were more likely to rank “learning other academic subjects like math, history, and science” as their highest priority (44%), compared with 19% of Spanish-speaking parents who ranked learning other academic subjects most important. Only 11% of Hispanic parents ranked “learning to read, write, and speak Spanish” as their most important goal, and only 4% said “learning about Hispanic culture” was most important. The survey does not suggest that learning Spanish is unimportant to Hispanic parents; rather, it simply shows that Hispanic parents don’t think that this should be a high priority for schools. Presumably, those who want to preserve their native language and culture will do so in their homes, churches and community groups, as have millions of previous immigrants.

The Center for Equal Opportunity invites policy makers, including the Republican-controlled Congress, to study our survey results carefully. So far, Congress has avoided dealing comprehensively with bilingual-education policy, instead merely cutting funding for federal bilingual programs. But only a tiny fraction of the more than $6 billion a year spent on bilingual education nationally comes from the federal government, $178 million in fiscal year 1996. And even the proposed constitutional amendment to make English the nation’s official language won’t do much, if anything, to change bilingual education policy.

Twenty-three states have similar laws or constitutional provisions, including California, which funds more bilingual-education programs and forces more Hispanic students to learn their lessons in Spanish than any other state. Simply declaring English the nation’s official language won’t touch those programs. Real change will come only when schools start trusting parents to know what’s best for their kids. It’s time we stop blaming Hispanic parents for the dismal failure of bilingual education to teach their children English. The real blame belongs to federal and state officials who keep this disastrous policy in place.

Ms. Chavez is president of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of “Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation” (Basic Books, 1991).

Bilingualism — for Whom? Should academic courses be taught in English or Spanish? All Hispanic parents who prefer . . . English 81.3% Spanish 12.2% Hispanic parents interviewed in Spanish . . . English 79.3% Spanish 13.3% Hispanic parents interviewed in English . . . English 91.2% Spanish 6.9% Hispanic parents with children in programs for non-English speaking students . . . English 82.0% Spanish 12.0% Source: Market Development Inc. survey of 600 respondents; margin of error +/- 4 percentage points. (See related letter: “Letters to the Editor: Some Students Need Bilingual Education” — WSJ Sept. 27, 1996)

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