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Senate Panel Bill Would Expand Bilingual-Ed. Funding Options

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WASHINGTON--Seeking a political consensus on bilingual education, the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee last week tentatively voted to expand federal support for "English only'' alternative programs and to limit the amount of time a child may receive native-language instruction.

The bipartisan measure, S 857, would allow the Education Department to award up to 25 percent of instructional grants to school programs that do not use students' native languages. Currently, under Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, from 4 percent to 10 percent of total appropriations may support such approaches, including English as a second language and "structured immersion.''

In awarding grants for these "special alternative instructional programs,'' the bill would give priority to schools where many languages are represented--making bilingual classrooms impractical--and to districts that have trouble recruiting qualified bilingual teachers and administrators.

Districts now receiving grants would be "held harmless.'' That is, the bill would not affect their eligibility for continued funding of up to five years. But unless Title VII funding is expanded, the legislation could reduce amounts available for new grants to support transitional bilingual programs.

Also, the bill would require a student to be "mainstreamed'' after three years in a federally funded bilingual classroom, unless school officials determined that the child was in danger of failing without special language instruction.

Unorthodox Vote

Polled individually on May 4, members of the committee approved the accord, 15-1, after several failed attempts to assemble a quorum. But at week's end, some confusion remained about whether this unorthodox procedure would be acceptable to the Senate leadership. Another vote may yet be held, according to committee staff members.

House consideration of S 857 is seen as unlikely for procedural reasons, though issues raised in the Senate measure are likely to be debated when the House version of the bilingual-education bill makes its way to the upper chamber. While the Senate bill would amend current law, a House Education and Labor Committee compromise would reauthorize Title VII, along with a dozen other elementary and secondary programs, through 1993. (See Education Week, April 29, 1987.) Final agreement on that measure, HR 5, is expected in mid-1988.

In its accord, the Senate committee was "trying to respond to the new and changing needs'' of the bilingual-education program, said Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who heads the panel.

Senator Dan Quayle, Republican of Indiana, expressed satisfaction that the compromise bill "does provide for some flexibility'' in financing programs to serve limited-English-proficient children. Arguing that decisions on methodology should be left to school districts, Mr. Quayle has previously sponsored the Reagan Administration's proposal to eliminate any requirement for native-language instruction.

The panel's lone dissenter was Senator Spark M. Matsunaga, Democrat of Hawaii, who regarded the proposal as damaging to transitional bilingual education, according to a spokesman. Educators in Mr. Matsunaga's home state had convinced him that the effectiveness of English-only programs is unproven and questionable at best, the spokesman said.

Educators Disappointed

That sentiment was echoed by bilingual-education advocates, who had urged Senator Kennedy not to act on the bill without holding hearings.

James J. Lyons, legislative counsel for the National Association for Bilingual Education, characterized the compromise bill as "purely political,'' a decision achieved without consulting educators or researchers.

Mr. Lyons also criticized the panel for failing "to look at the big picture''--how the full spectrum of federal programs could better serve the needs of LEP children. While acknowledging that a diversity of language backgrounds sometimes makes bilingual instruction impractical, he argued that federal funding for E.S.L. programs is currently available under Chapter 1 and the $30-million emergency immigrant assistance program, which the Administration has targeted for elimination.

Also, under an "escalator clause'' in current law, the Education Department could increase aid to English-only programs by seeking appropriations above this year's level of $143 million, Mr. Lyons said.

"Unfortunately, the committee is developing policy in the dark, based on emotion, assumptions, and perceptions, rather than on facts,'' said Arturo Vargas, an education specialist for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic organization.

There is "no research evidence,'' he said, to support the three-year limit on student participation in bilingual classes, a provision suggested by Senator Claiborne Pell, Democrat of Rhode Island. "Most Americans don't learn a second language in a lifetime,'' Mr. Vargas added.

An aide to Mr. Pell responded: "The fear is that kids are not learning English. This [provision] will ensure, hopefully, that the program is designed to do that in three years.''

Exceptions to the rule would be allowed "in certain special cases where individual students would clearly suffer,'' the aide added.

A member of Senator Kennedy's staff said there was "increasing pressure'' to assist districts where there are "low concentrations'' of LEP children from any one language group, where "it's not feasible for bilingual programs to be implemented.'' But the aide could cite no school districts that had urged the committee to provide additional funding for English-only programs.

A soon-to-be-released General Accounting Office study, based on a survey of 26 states, concludes that from 22 percent to 28 percent of LEP students were in "low concentration'' areas in the 1985-86 school year--that is, where there are too few LEP children to justify bilingual classrooms.

In the states that mandate bilingual instruction, some set that "trigger'' at 10 LEP children from the same language group at the same grade level; others at 20 students.

The G.A.O. cautions, however, that its figures are unreliable because "states do not systematically or routinely collect'' such data and because districts have reason to "underestimate the LEP population.''

"The caveats overwhelm the statistics,'' Mr. Lyons said, arguing that, while no reliable data exist, the problem of language diversity is probably overstated. Also, Title VII has supported programs using 181 different languages, he said.

Immersion Study

Structured immersion in English, an approach that "shows great promise,'' according to Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, is currently the subject of a four-year longitudinal study financed by the Education Department.

Late last month, the department released its second-year report on the study, but omitted test data comparing the achievement of immersion students with that of bilingual-program students.

In the study's first-year results, leaked to the press last year, children in long-term bilingual classes outperformed the immersion students in reading, language, and mathematics tests administered in English. (See Education Week, April 23, 1986.)

Keith Baker, the Education Department official who is directing the study, said these preliminary results--which have yet to be adjusted for "pre-existing differences'' between the students--prove nothing about the superiority of one methodology or the other.

Bilingual-education advocates had argued that the programs should be compared over several years, and that is what the department intends to do, Mr. Baker said. "We hope in another 24 months we'll have it sorted out.''

Ricardo Martinez, an aide to Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, Democrat of California, called for the data's release so that they could be "compared with the department's public statements'' in praise of immersion. "Research in progress is always reported,'' Mr. Martinez said. "It's [financed with] public money. There's no reason why this data should not be published. It's not a national-security issue.''

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