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Battle Lines Redrawn Over Bilingual Education

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WASHINGTON--Democrats and Republicans on the House Education and Labor Committee last week began drawing battle lines over bilingual education, mobilizing educators and federal officials to testify on how to serve the needs of limited-English-proficient children.

Carol Pendas Whitten, director of the federal office of bilingual education and minority languages affairs, reiterated the Reagan Administration's view during a hearing before the House subcommittee on elementary, secondary, and vocational education last week that research has shown that "there is no one best method of instruction for all children under all circumstances.''

But Ms. Whitten's claims about the research evidence were challenged by Eleanor Chelimsky, director of the program-evaluation division of the General Accounting Office. She described a recent report by the nonpartisan Congressional agency in which a majority of experts concluded that the Education Department "understates the effectiveness of [bilingual methods] and overstates it for all-English approaches,'' such as structured immersion.

Reauthorization Bill

The House committee is currently considering HR 1755, which would extend the Bilingual Education Act, with only minor changes, through 1993. The measure is sponsored by the panel's chairman, Augustus F. Hawkins, and three other Democrats.

At issue is whether to retain the federal funding preference for instructional programs that make some use of children's native language while they are learning English.

Representative James Jeffords, Republican of Vermont, has introduced opposing legislation, which would remove the act's "4 percent cap'' on financial support for English-only approaches. The bill, HR 1448, was proposed by the Administration.

President Reagan, speaking in Columbia, Mo., criticized "federal interference that is trying to force local school districts to continue teaching students in their native tongue. ... If they're going to be in America, they have to learn our language to get along.''

Educators' Views

Gordon M. Ambach, commissioner of education for New York State, urged the committee to reauthorize the Bilingual Education Act in its current form and "to keep the [4 percent] cap where it is.''

"[The] message the federal government is sending,'' he said, is important.

Transitional bilingual education should continue to receive preference, Mr. Ambach argued, both because it is effective and because bilingual skills enhance the nation's "capacity to compete in the world.''
"We must become truly a bilingual population,'' he said.

Harry Handler, superintendent of Los Angeles schools, said there are "multiple benefits'' of programs that fully develop "a child's non-English native language,'' citing the success of the Eastman Avenue Elementary School in East Los Angeles.

On the other hand, Lilian Falk of Prince George's County, Md., argued that transitional bilingual education is impractical where students speak many languages. In her district in suburban Washington, D.C., Ms. Falk said, children from 127 language groups are doing well in English-as-a-second-language classes, without native-language instruction.

"In order to meet this diversity of need,'' she said, federal aid to "programs serving English-deficient students [should not] mandate a specific method of instruction.''

Bill's Provisions

HR 1755, the Democrats' bilingual-education proposal, was introduced last week, featuring a variety of minor amendments to the program. They include:

  • Incorporating funds for developmental bilingual education--sometimes called "language-maintenance programs''--in the 75 percent "set-aside'' that is now reserved for transitional bilingual education. Only two developmental programs now receive federal grants, totaling $226,000.
  • Reversing a decision last year by the Education Department to restrict the definition of limited-English proficiency among Native American children to those whose native language is used substantially in the home. This provision would restore the previous definition: children whose ancestral tongue has exerted a "significant impact'' on their English skills.
  • Eliminating the National Advisory and Coordinating Council on Bilingual Education. Several of the panel's current members have been criticized for their outspoken opposition to bilingual education.
  • Expanding federal funding authority from $176 million to $246 million per year. Congressional aides said, however, that appropriations panels are unlikely to approve funding significantly higher than the 1987 level of $143 million.

In the Senate, the Labor and Human Resources Committee was expected to vote this week on the Education Department's bilingual-education proposal, S 383. Sources said that Senator Dan Quayle, the measure's sponsor, would propose a compromise version that would retain a cap on grants to English-only programs, but raise it from 4 percent to 25 percent.

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