Richard Tapia, once a child of a Los Angeles barrio, now an acclaimed math professor at Rice University in Houston, was 6 when his mother issued an order to her five children: They would speak English at home.

The edict strained family relations because some relatives read in it a rejection of their Mexican heritage. But as the children grew up, with four earning graduate degrees from the likes of UCLA, Stanford and Yale, Richard Tapia came to appreciate her decision.

He understood her logic when, in college, he came up against precocious graduates of Los Angeles’ most elite private schools. I had to compete at the same level, and I needed to be armed with the same tools. The bottom line is this: I can’t go into battle unprepared.” Today, Tapia worries that bilingual education has left millions of minority students defenseless. And he is not alone. Nationwide, bilingual education is under attack from California to New York, led in part by political opponents who consider it both ineffective and a corrosive, socially balkanizing agent.

Of 52 million public school students nationwide, more than 3 million, or 7 percent, receive some bilingual instruction, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Parents weigh in

Many immigrant parents have joined the assault on these programs. Eighty-four percent of Latino voters in California support a proposed ballot initiative that would essentially dismantle bilingual education in the public schools there, a recent Los Angeles Times poll showed. That’s even higher than the overall level of support, at 80 percent.

The opposition of immigrant parents is often based on fear that their children face bleak economic futures if they are not fluent in English.

My daughter will have more opportunity to get a good job” if she is fluent in English, said Milagros Hilario, 34, who moved to Brooklyn 21 years ago from the Dominican Republic.

She fought successfully to have her 10-year-old daughter, Kioveny, removed from bilingual classes after watching her fall behind in both languages. Kioveny understood spoken English but wasn’t being taught to read or write it. She could copy work in Spanish off the board but understood little.

Hilario and other immigrant mothers from her neighborhood have gone countless rounds with New York City school administrators trying to place their children in English-only classes. They contend that their children get plenty of Spanish language, culture and heritage at home.

The Round Rock, Austin and Del Valle school districts all said parents can choose to have their children bypass their bilingual programs.

Pat Crovisier, a spokeswoman for Del Valle schools, said the district must have parental permission to test or refer students for bilingual education. About 300 take part in Del Valle elementary schools alone.

In the Austin district, parents absolutely have a choice, said Della May Moore, director for bilingual education. Of more than 9,000 students eligible for the program, about 1,500 have opted not to participate, she said. In addition, about 1,500 a year exit the program.

In the Round Rock district, about 19 percent of the eligible kids opt out — in some cases because the program can require extra commuting, said Allane Booth, director of special programs. About 300 Round Rock students participate.

In Denver, educators are resisting federal rules that govern bilingual instruction. They want to mainstream all children into English-only instruction within three years, and they want control over who is placed in bilingual classes in the first place.

The most significant activity by far is in California, where opponents of bilingual education have gathered enough signatures to force the issue to a vote next June. Should the initiative pass, classroom instruction would occur in English, with non-English-speaking students taking one-year transitional classes in their native languages.

Time span questioned

Bilingual education advocates predict that once more is known about the initiative, overall support will dwindle. Most students cannot learn English in just one year, they say, and once parents understand that it could put their children at risk, they’ll switch sides.

There’s not a credible shred of evidence that this is something that can normally be accomplished in a year,” said Jim Lyons, director of the National Association for Bilingual Education in Washington. He said he detects anti-immigrant sentiment in the initiative.

What few seem able to answer is whether bilingual programs work. Do children who receive true bilingual instruction learn English any faster than those who are directly mainstreamed into English-only classes?

Much of the research is biased, depending on the advocacy group that sponsored it. But the limited number of well-controlled scientific studies that do exist found bilingual instruction to be somewhat, but not remarkably, helpful, said Kenji Hakuta, who led a National Research Council committee to review existing research on bilingual education.

Andy Alford of the American-Statesman staff contributed to this report.

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