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June 1995, Volume 2, Number 6

Bilingual Education and Immigrant Integration

The Bilingual Education Act of 1967 required local school districts to teach subjects such as math and science in the native language of students, at a cost in federal funds of $226 million in 1993.

Bilingual education has now come under attack. In many school districts, all students with, for example, Hispanic surnames, are tested for English language proficiency, and those who score in the fortieth percentile or less are placed in bilingual classes. Those placed in bilingual programs are reportedly isolated from other students.

Many studies conclude that non-English-speaking students taught in English do better than those taught in their native language. In the second such study by a major school district, a New York study concluded that those taught mostly in English perform better in English and math and science than children taught subjects such as math and science in their native language, with supplementary English instruction. The justification for bilingual education is that, by teaching non-English speaking children in their mother tongue, they will not fall behind other students, and will learn English.

One alternative to bilingual education is English as a Second Language. In ESL settings, students take regular classes in math and science, but then take supplemental intensive instruction in English. In New York City, over three-fourths of the non-English speaking children who entered kindergarten in ESL programs were able to move into regular classes within three years, versus half of the children in bilingual classes. Bilingual education costs $7,289 per student per year in New York City, versus $5,149 for regular classes.

A reassessment of the overall performance of the US educational system by Sandia concluded that "America's 'on-time' high school graduation rate has been steady for over 20 years at roughly 75 percent to 80 percent....[but the] recent immigration of Hispanics, many of whom come into the US school system with inadequate background to succeed is significantly inflating dropout figures for the Hispanic population....some students require more than four years to complete high school, and many dropouts avail themselves of opportunities to reenter (GED, night school, etc.), resulting in an overall high school completion rate for young adults of over 85 percent. This rate is improving and is among the best in the world."

Organizations such as the American Legion have attacked bilingual education, bilingual ballots, and the practice of swearing in new US citizens in a language other than English. For example, in 1993, 76 immigrants in Tucson became US citizens in a ceremony conducted mostly in Spanish. In California, drivers may take their test in any one of 35 languages, including Laotian, Farsi, Samoan, Western Armenian, and Tongan. Federal law requires that voting materials be printed in the language of any non-English speaking group of 10,000 or more, or if they are five percent or more, of a voting district.

California had a law practically mandating the teaching of "limited English proficient" (LEP) students in their own language until 1987 but, according to a recent reports, the state Department of Education has been captured by administrators and unions that benefit from own-language instruction, so that the law's requirements persist. At a December 1994 hearing in Sacramento, there was widespread opposition from such groups to plans that would permit the establishment of English immersion programs if the local school board thought that English immersion was the best way for LEP children to learn.

California Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin asked the Board of Education to increase flexibility for districts that want to use more English-language instruction because educators are becoming convinced that bilingual education is not the most effective means to teach non-native English speakers. Eastin also plans to crackdown on school districts using the native-language model and not performing well.

California has 1.2 million LEP students in 500 school districts (of 5.2 million), and spends $300 million annually to educate non-English speakers in their native languages. The debate over bilingual education is illustrated by the response to the Sacramento Bee editorial by William Dawson, the former acting state superintendent of public instruction in California. There is disagreement on the facts: Dawson asserts that the research shows that using the students primary language leads to English becoming the main language after two to three years, but that special services are needed for five to seven years.

English First, the organization that supported Prop. 63 in 1986, opposes bilingual education. The 4,300-member California Association for Bilingual Education (CABE) supports the continuation of bilingual education programs.

In New York City, an "immigrant high school" has been proposed to educate up to 1,000 ninth to twelfth graders in English and native languages who have been in the US for less than one year. If approved by the Board of Education, the new school would offer newcomers up to four years--rather than the usual one year-- of native language instruction; critics allege that such newcomer schools institutionalize the isolation of immigrant children, making it hard for them to make the transition into regular schools.

"Bilingual education under challenge as costly error," Sacramento Bee, May 23, 1995. "Educators' Views Divided on Schools for immigrants," New York Times, March 26, 1995. Pam Belluck, "New School Would Serve Immigrants," New York Times, March 20, 1995, B1. Ed Mendel, "Conservative trend translates into attack on bilingual education," The San Diego Union-Tribune, March 6, 1995; Siobhan Morrissey, "Official: Teach Haitians in Creole," The Palm Beach Post, February 5, 1995. William Dawson, "Defending the state's bilingual education," Sacramento Bee, January 3, 1994, B7. "To Reform Bilingual Education," Sacramento Bee, December 27, 1994, B6. Sam Dillon, "Bilingual Education Effort is Flawed, Study Indicates," New York Times, October 20, 1994, A17. Jonathan Yardley, "The Hard Lessons of Bilingual Education," The Washington Post, October 24, 1994.