Commentary

Bilingual-Policy Initiative 'Doesn't Make Sense'

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Secretary of Education William J. Bennett launched the Reagan Administration's "initiative" on bilingual education Sept. 26. In a media-hyped speech to the Association for a Better New York, Mr. Bennett attacked the new Bilingual Education Act, which was passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress last fall. At the same time, he branded as "a failure" two decades of federal policies on educating language-minority students. (See Education Week, Oct. 2, 1985.)

Lost on many listeners to the Secretary's address was a more fundamental message: Equality of educational opportunity no longer means what it used to; language-minority students--native American, immigrant, and refugee--must be satisfied with only a partial education.

Veteran Washington observers were shocked by the vehemence of the Secretary's attack. Both prior to and immediately following his confirmation last February, Mr. Bennett repeatedly declined to give his views on how the federal government should help communities educate the more than four million language-minority students who don't know English well enough to learn successfully in monolingual classrooms. Exhibiting uncharacteristic reticence and thoughtfulness, Mr. Bennett promised he would undertake a thorough examination of this complex and compelling issue.

In his New York address, Mr. Bennett--a lawyer-philosopher who recently has taken to teaching high-school American history under the doting eye of network television--recounted the development of federal bilingual-education policy. In so doing, he not only rewrote the history of bilingual education, but also redefined the meaning of equal educational opportunity.

According to Mr. Bennett, "The responsibility of the federal government must be to help ensure that local schools succeed in teaching non-English-speaking students English, so that every American enjoys access to the opportunities of American society."

Certainly none of the members of Congress who developed and voted for the new Bilingual Education Act last year would question the importance of effectively teaching English to language-minority students. And the Hispanic leaders and advocates of bilingual education who department officials charge are out of touch with their constituents have never discounted the importance of teaching English to such students.

No one with an ounce of sense, however, would say that a child who has mastered English but has not learned mathematics, history, geography, civics, and other subjects was educated or prepared for life in this society. Why Secretary Bennett, who generally champions a rigorous comprehensive education, has so narrowly set out the purpose and goal of schooling for language-minority students is anyone's guess.

What is clear is that Mr. Bennett's narrow and unworkable definition of what constitutes equal educational opportunity is central to his confused attack on federal law and policy.

In arguing against the laws and policies he was hired to implement, Secretary Bennett cited the tragic and dangerously high dropout rates of Hispanic students as proof that federal laws and policies are wrong. Nowhere in his 17-page speech did he acknowledge that most Hispanic students--indeed, most students eligible for federal bilingual-education services--have never at-tended bilingual classes.

And so, the Secretary has declared that English-as-a-second-language and undefined "immersion" programs are viable alternatives to bilingual education. Yes, ESL is a sound method of teaching English to non-English-language-background students, especially when carried out by bilingual school personnel. And that is exactly why the new Bilingual Education Act requires that every federally funded program of bilingual education provide intensive "structured English-language instruction." The trouble is that ESL and so-called immersion programs often fail to teach anything but English!

Prior to enactment of the federal Bilingual Education Act of 1968, language-minority students who didn't know English were universally ignored. If schooling was available at all, it was tailored to the needs of English-language-background students. A majority of the parents of limited-English-proficient students today are themselves the casualties of this earlier educational neglect.

Thanks to federal policy--the Bilingual Education Act and other compensatory-education programs, the Supreme Court's 1974 decision in Lau v. Nichols, and technical assistance to help school districts achieve civil-rights compliance--the situation has improved. Because of federal encouragement and financial support, ESL and native-language instructional methods have been developed, teachers have been trained, classroom materials have been prepared and published, evaluation instruments have been written and refined; the list goes on and on.

Federal education and civil-rights policies have increased the number of school personnel who can communicate with non-English-speaking students and parents. Such policies have, if you will, opened the schoolhouse door. Moreover, the new Bilingual Education Act requires that parents receive information about the placement and progress of students in programs funded under the act, and gives parents the right to decline placement of their children in such programs.

Federal policy has made it possible for parents who don't know English to become active partners in their children's education. The principle of parent choice--championed so ardently by Secretary Bennett--is at the heart of bilingual-education law and policy.

In support of his pared-down concept of equal educational opportunity, Secretary Bennett decried the "lack of flexibility" in current federal law and policy. At the same time, the Secretary conveniently ignored a number of facts.

He ignored the fact that although more than 300 school districts applied for the supposedly "inflexible" transitional-bilingual-education grants this year, the department was able to fund just over 100 applications. He ignored the fact that although 48 school districts and community organizations asked for seed money to start family English-literacy programs, the department made money available for only four of these programs. And he did not tell his audience that the Administration has already asked the Congress to eliminate all funding for such family-literacy programs next year.

The Administration's budget proposal to "zero fund" family English-literacy programs next year provides a clue to the question of whether Secretary Bennett is mixed up or malicious. Unlike the comprehensive education programs authorized under the Bilingual Education Act, the family-literacy programs have a single objective: teaching English to parents. And because the programs are for adults, the law does not require any use of the parents' native languages in this simple, straightforward English instruction.

Since taking office, Mr. Bennett has traveled widely and talked loosely. Some of what he says makes sense: "Parents are the first and most influential teachers of their children; they should spend more time with their children, reading to them and teaching them to read." But Mr. Bennett's message on bilingual education--coupled with facts the Secretary knew but never disclosed--does not make sense. At best he is mixed up; at worst, he is malicious.

Vol. 05, Issue 08, Page 15

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