Bilingual Education

By Ruben Navarette
Volume 9, Number 1 (Fall 1998)
Issue theme: "Making the case for faith-based immigration reform"

In theory, using bilingual education to teach students English without sacrificing their native language sounds charming. But in practice, it loses something in the translation.

It has been more than a month since California voters approved Proposition 227, the "English for the Children Initiative," which mandates that students be taught in English. And many are still aghast at what they see as an assault on the educational opportunities of Latino children, the most common recipients of bilingual education.

There is fear. Some are concernbed that the assault will spread to other states. And arrigance. Bilingual educators, along with the university professors who mold their views, are miffed that a teaching device that began in 1963 in a Miami classroom and has since thrived within the cocoon of the educational establishment, should now bear the insult of being scrutinized by commoners at the ballot box.

The insult stings because the harshest scrutiny comes from the program's intended beneficiaries. In a dozen polls taken during the months before the election, Latino support for Proposition 227 was near 60 percent. It eventually settled at 37 percent.

Indeed, it was a protest by a group of Latino parents against bilingual education in a Los Angeles elementary school that inspired the initiative. And they were late. Nearly ten years ago, in Arizona, Hispanic parents in the Glendale Elementary School District began asking administrators tough questions about bilingual education. And now, in Tucson, a group of Hispanic parents and educators want to put a 227-type initiative before Arizona voters.

Meanwhile, many non-Hispanics who support bilingual education assume that its primary goal is English acquisition. Guess again. That might have been what Congress intended when it passed the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, which first extended the federal trough to include bilingual programs. But since then, the program has quietly been transformed into an all-purpose silver bullet aimed at myriad societal ills that are not just educational but also political, cultural, and even historical.

To some, it is a magic wand that enables the student to maintain intimacy with a culture from which previous generations have felt alienated through schooling. To others, it is a soap box for flexing the political muscle of the bilingual education lobby. And to still others, it is a soothing ointment rubbed on old wounds caused by years of abuse by an American educational system that once punished the speaking of other languages, especially Spanish, in hurtful ways not easily forgotten.

All of this means little to the Latino masses, including immigrant parents who want for their children a life of softer hands, better wages and shorter hours, and recognize these as impossible to attain without a mastery of English.

And while bilingual educators claim that they too value English, most bilingual programs make English acquisition take a back seat to maintaining native languages and producing "bilingual" students.

Of course, if bilingual education students succeed in juggling both languages, then there's no problem. But evidence is piling up that the juggling act isn't working and that students are not learning enough English to make the transition into mainstream courses. In Arizona, according to a recent study by the state department of education, the figure is just 2.8 percent.

According to a woman who serves as a bilingual coordinator for a local district, and who asked not to be identified for fear of losing her job, two main reasons for the especially low Arizona figure is that our students spend far too long - up to six years, in some cases - on a bilingual track and that many bilingual educators resist accountability.

Until that changes, the bilingual education establishment, and the Hispanic parents it claims to serve, Will never speak the same language.