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June 1997, Volume 4, Number 4

Immigration and Bilingual Education

There were 2.8 million Limited-English Proficient (LEP) pupils in K-12 schools in the US in 1996-97, double the number in the mid-1980s. Fewer than 1 in 5 teachers teaching LEP pupils is certified to teach them, prompting a re-examination of bilingual education in many states.

Most bilingual education programs were launched in the early 1970s, and today each of the nation's 10 most populous states have some kind of mandate for bilingual education. Most bilingual programs are funded with state and local money.

Both federal and state policies in the 1970s and 1980s favored instruction in the students' primary language for five to seven years. The director of bilingual education and minority languages affairs for the US Department of Education, Delia Pompa, says that: "Research shows that there is benefit to children when teachers incorporate native language instruction as much as possible."

Critics of bilingual education argue that LEP students can and should quickly shift to English-language classrooms, and that giving LEP students special help in English is a better way to ensure their integration and success in the US. English-as-a-Second-Language instruction promises speedier progress, they say.

LEP students in the US are defined as those who would have difficulty understanding an all-English curriculum without additional assistance.

California. California has about 12 percent of K-12 public school students, but its 1.3 LEP students are almost half of the US total. About 44 percent of California K-3 LEP pupils are in K-3, 37 percent are in grades 4-8, and 18 percent are in grades 9-12. The share of public K-12 pupils considered LEP in California rose from 18 to 25 percent between 1990 and 1996. The number of LEP pupils rose in 695 of 802 California school districts between 1990 and 1996, sometimes by 100 percent or more.

There are also 1.9 million low-income K-12 pupils in California; an estimated 80 percent of LEP pupils are also low-income.

California spent about $320 million in state funds and $50 million in federal funds in 1995-96 on LEP children. Another $64 million in state funds and $823 million in federal funds was spent on low-income and migrant students, some of whom are LEP. State funds for LEP education increased to $319 million in 1996 from $108 million in 1986, while state funds for low-income students decreased to $64 million from $93 million over this period.

In California, Hispanics are about 40 percent of all children in public schools, but are 80 percent of the LEP children. LEP students in California speak 87 primary languages and numerous dialects, led by Spanish and followed by Vietnamese, Hmong, Cantonese, Filipino/Tagalog, Khmer (Cambodian), Korean and Armenian.

Total enrollment in public California K-12 schools is expected to increase from 5.4 million in 1995 to 6.4 million in 2005, when over half of the pupils are projected to be Hispanic.

The bilingual issue has come to a head in the late 1990s for several reasons, including an immigration-fueled boom in students that has left many school districts with too few native-language teachers. California has 220,000 teachers, but only 13,500 have credentials to teach LEP students, producing, in 1996, a shortage of nearly 21,000 qualified teachers. Since only 5,000 qualified bilingual teachers graduate every year, there are likely to be too few teachers for years to come.

This produces very high ratios of LEP children per qualified teacher. For example, in 1996 in California, there were 1,051,125 Spanish-speaking LEP pupils and 13,027 certified Spanish bilingual teachers, or 81 pupils per teacher. For 47,663 Vietnamese-speaking students, there are 72 certified bilingual teachers, a 662-to-1 ratio.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin says that "finding qualified bilingual teachers may be our toughest [education] challenge." Fresno sent recruiters to Mexico in August 1996 to recruit Spanish-speaking teachers, and some US schools buy Mexican teaching materials.

The San Francisco Examiner in mid-May 1997 examined bilingual education in California and concluded that the already contentious debate over bilingual education is likely to sharpen. Among the options discussed to deal with the growing number of LEP pupils is to ease immigration requirements for teachers, to modify testing procedures (remove "the more difficult vocabulary, and resort to more qualitative assessment by making observations of kids and looking at portfolios,") to test in languages other than English, and to have all students work in at least two languages in school.

LEP students, on average, do not fare well in US schools. About 30 percent of Latinos do not complete high school, compared to eight percent of non-Hispanic whites and 13 percent of Blacks. The dropout rate for LEP Latinos is 50 percent. Overall, California fourth-graders rank near the bottom in reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test.

Norm Gold, bilingual compliance manager with the state Department of Education, says that California is "not doing as well as many other states [on the test] because of our huge limited-English population."

Former GOP gubernatorial candidate Ron Unz is funding an initiative expected to be placed on the June 2, 1998 ballot that would order the dismantling of the current bilingual education program in California.

The number of LEP children in 802 California school districts and their share of all K-12 pupils, by year for 1990-96 is: 1990, 855,000 (18.4 percent); 1991, 979,000 (20.3 percent); 1992, 1,071,000 (21.6 percent); 1993, 1,143,000 (22.6 percent); 1994, 1,205,000 (23.6 percent); 1995, 1,252,000 (24.1 percent); and 1996, 1,313,000 (24.7 percent).

Local Issues. Several Orange County California school districts have eliminated bilingual programs in favor of programs that teach students in English, in response to parents who said that bilingual programs did not give students the English language skills they need to go to college or get jobs. Orange Unified, with 28,000 enrolled in K-12 schools, is the largest school district to petition the state board of education to modify its bilingual program. The Orange Unified School Board says that, with 40 other ethnic groups, it can no longer justify existing, native-language instruction programs that are mostly in Spanish.

The Orange Unified board, which is divided in most of its decisions, voted 7 to 0 on April 17 in favor of applying for waivers from bilingual education requirements, saying that there was no conclusive evidence that current bilingual classes were successful in teaching students math, science and social studies.

Many parents and bilingual teachers bitterly opposed the request for waivers, asserting that ending required bilingual classes was evidence of racism and anti-immigrant xenophobia.

At the center of the bilingual debate is a disagreement over two criteria: California law says that students must have equal access to the core classes; and that students must develop proficiency in English. Bilingual supporters maintain "equal access" means that core classes must be taught in Spanish, critics maintain that LEP pupils can be taught subject matter in English while increasing their proficiency in English.

Ravenswood School District in East Palo Alto illustrates another issue: tension between Black and Hispanic children over how to allocated limited funds for needy pupils. In 1986, the Ravenswood district was 85 percent Black. In 1996, its 4,700 students were 68 percent Hispanic and 29 percent Black and 68 percent were considered LEP. Native-born Spanish speaking teachers were hired to teach the LEP students, which prompted Black parents to request special teachers for their children as well.

Ravenswood spends about $6,000 per LEP pupil per year, and $3,900 per pupil per year on students who speak English as their first language. According to the Ravenswood superintendent, "More money is spent per student on language-minority youngsters than other youngsters because it's prescribed and protected by law... Limited-English students can draw from low-income, general, bilingual and special education funding."

In December 1996, the Oakland Unified School District attempted to use federal bilingual money to teach English to Black children by passing a resolution to recognize "ebonics"-- black English -- as a primary non-English language. The US Department of Education rejected the request.

Among the items reported by the Examiner: many of the 10,000 Armenian-speaking students in Glendale Unified School District in Southern California do not attend for the full year because, according to the principal: "during winter in Armenia, there's no electricity, so schools just close."

In Madera, California, a small city about 30 miles north of Fresno, school officials said that enrollment in K-6 dropped by 100, a result attributed to fears of immigrant families that they may be deported if their children attend school. An outreach coordinator asserted that at least 10 large Mixtec families in the area are not sending their children to school.

School enrollment usually increases in May in Madera as farm workers arrive from Mexico with their families.

Other. The Massachusetts State Board of Education on May 12, 1997 unanimously approved a proposal first made by ex-Governor William Weld to limit students whose first language is not English to three years of bilingual education. Board chairman John R. Silber said: "We have seen the research on bilingual education, and we know very well the record of failure in that program." The Legislature must approve the proposed changes in bilingual education.

Massachusetts in 1970 set up the nation's first mandated bilingual education program.

The Puerto Rican Department of Education announced plans to use English as a second language of instruction in public schools in Fall 1997 prompted demonstrations by teachers and predictions of cultural suicide. Beginning in August, 1997, Puerto Rico plans to use textbooks in English for the first time for some courses other than English, extend English classes to 90 minutes from 50 and give priority to reading and writing in English in first, second and third grades.

Starting in 1949, Spanish replaced English in public schools for all courses except English class, and today about 25 percent of Puerto Rico's 3.7 million residents are bilingual. According to the Department of Education, 90 percent of the island's 650,000 public school students lack basic English skills when they graduate from high school.

English. The 1990 Census reported that there were 32 million residents older than five who spoke a language other than English in their homes, including 17.3 million who spoke Spanish, 1.7 million who spoke French; 1.5 million, German; 1.3 million, Italian; 1.2 million, Chinese; 0.8 million, Tagalog; 0.7 million, Polish; 0.6 million, Korean; 0.5 million, Vietnamese; and 0.4 million each for Portuguese, Japanese, Greek, and Arabic.

There are about 30 million "Latino" consumers in the US, and companies and their ad agencies are debating whether they should sell products to them in English or Spanish. The Census in 1990 reported that 55 percent of US Latinos were bilingual, 23 percent speak only English and 10 percent speak only Spanish.

Robert D. King, in the April 1997 issue of Atlantic Magazine, says that Americans should not worry about foreigners learning English. He refers to fears of the past that newcomers were willing or unable to learn English, fears that proved unwarranted, and concludes that there is no reason for the US to adopt official English legislation. King says that equating language with nationhood is a uniquely 20th century concept -- one which has led to strife and even bloodshed in countries like the former Yugoslavia.

USA Today had a long account of the cost of inadequate communication in the US, where 11 percent of those in the labor force are foreign born. According to the report, because 25 percent of US doctors are graduates of foreign medical schools (including US-born persons who studied abroad). The Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates, beginning in July 1998, will require an oral English exam.

New York City's Taxi and Limousine Commission requires its 45,000 licensed cab drivers -- more than 90 percent foreign-born -- to pass English proficiency tests or sign up for English-language training.

Ohio University economist Lowell Gallaway estimated that inadequate English among foreign-born residents costs the US $175 billion a year in lost productivity, wages, tax revenue and unemployment compensation, mostly due to lower wages for the foreign born, but including $40 billion due to failure to communicate.

The EEOC in 1996 began to separate language and accent discrimination complaints from other discrimination cases. Most of the first 32 cases in the new category involved English-only policies by employers.


Pamela J. Podger and Robert Rodriguez, "Rural schools see enrollment drop," Fresno Bee, May 28, 1997. Mireya Navarro, "Puerto Rico Teachers Fight Teaching in English," New York Times, May 19, 1997. Julian Guthrie, "Immigrants put teachers to the test," San Francisco Examiner, May 12, 1997. Julian Guthrie, "Schools struggle with shifting ethnic balance," San Francisco Examiner, May 14, 1997. Julian Guthrie, "When language hinders learning," San Francisco Examiner, May 11, 1997. Daniel B. Wood, "Parents force schools to speak English--only," Christian Science Monitor," April 29, 1997. "Can't anyone here speak English?" USA Today, February 28, 1997. King, Robert. 1997. Should English Be the Law? Atlantic. April. http://www.theatlantic.com/atlantic/issues/97apr/english.htm/a>