MUCH OF THE CONTROVERSY in the education-reform debate of 2001 has attached to President Bush’s proposal to let low-income parents use some federal aid to apply toward private-sector alternatives when their children are stuck in chronically failing public schools. All the while, with little fanfare, a broader application of parental choice in Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” reform — and in state education reforms from coast to coast — is winning bipartisan support and catching on as part of a profound revamping of a 30-year-old social policy gone astray: bilingual education.

Now a proposal by Rhode Island legislators seeks to replace the state’s bilingual programs altogether. The principle behind the reform movement is simple: The nation’s nearly 4 million English learners should not be consigned for seven years or longer to classes that systematically avoid helping them gain rapid acquisition of English. The federal version of Bush’s reforms passed last week in the U.S. House would oblige school districts to obtain the permission of parents when they are considering assignment of limited-English proficiency children to an instructional program not taught primarily in English.

That embodies a “Parents Know Best” approach that Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo has championed. In addition, that plan would strip out the strong preference that federal funding streams currently accord programs that teach immigrant children in non-English, native language as opposed to immersing them in English.

The Senate version contains much weaker reforms. The new approach would hold states and local districts strictly accountable for their federally aided LEP children being fully proficient in English after no more than three years of attending school in the United States.

Rather than waiting for Washington, Rhode Island state Rep. Rep. Myrna George (D-Exeter) and others would like to see Rhode Island join states acting on their own to break up the linguistic ghetto that bilingual education has become for too many children.

Massachusetts, Connecticut, Colorado, Rhode Island, along with the City of New York, have amongthe most active reform movements. Californians’ 1998 passage of Proposition 227 to substitute English immersion for bilingual education has begun yielding hard data to show that literacy is on the upswing where the voters’ will has been faithfully implemented. Arizona passed a similar initiative two years later, and Colorado organizers are preparing for one in 2002.

Many bilingual-education programs place a disproportionate emphasis on other goals, such as providing multicultural experiences rather than teaching English.

“In Rhode Island, we provide public education to our children in many different languages,” said co-sponsor Rep. John Douglas Barr II (D-Lincoln). “Some students leave school without knowing how to fully speak, read and write in English. If that happens, then their opportunities are extremely limited. How is that doing a service to our schoolchildren?”

What about the more than a third of Providence Latino students who are Limited-English Proficient? Where can they acquire the vital, English-language skills they need to succeed while their educators dabble in such radical language politics at their expense?

At confirmation hearings for U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige earlier this year, U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd (D.-Conn.) offered some strong commentary on the state of bilingual education. “I’m very disturbed by what I see as a growing problem and a failure of our bilingual programs,” he said. “These are good people, but too many of these kids don’t speak Spanish very well, let alone English very well. And too many of them are staying in the programs far too long. . . . We are failing these kids and we’re failing their families.”

Meaningful reform of bilingual-education programs could turn the education industry and its funding streams around in the direction of teaching English to all.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public-policy think tank based in Arlington, Va.

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