Bilingual-Ed. Accord Seeks To Avoid Past Battles
For the past decade, raising the subject of bilingual education in Congress has meant acrimonious debate over whether limited-English-proficient students should be taught in English only or partially in their native language.
The programs, which form Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, must be reauthorized this year along with the rest of the E.S.E.A. But the customary fireworks have been conspicuously absent.
This time, "we're not arguing over whether bilingual education works,'' said Eugene E. Garcia, the director of the Education Department's office of bilingual education and minority-languages affairs.
The largest and best-known part of Title VII awards competitive grants to school districts to support programs for L.E.P. students.
Over the past decade, political debate focused on how much of the grant funds should go to "special alternative'' programs that do not use students' native languages.
But this year, the House Education and Labor Committee approved its E.S.E.A. bill, HR 6, without any attempt by bilingual-education advocates to further restrict such grants or by critics to increase their share of the pie.
House members and the Administration had quietly agreed to maintain the current language capping funding for special-alternative programs at 25 percent of spending.
In a striking change of posture, bilingual-education advocates also agreed to accept an amendment by Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the ranking Republican on the House panel, that could effectively negate the cap.
The amendment would allow the Secretary of Education to waive the cap for a district if it can show "documented convincing efforts'' that it has tried to hire sufficient "instructional personnel'' who speak students' native languages, and that there are too many languages spoken in one school to make feasible a bilingual-education program.
An aide to Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., who negotiated on behalf of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the National Association for Bilingual Education, said that the compromise was struck to get bipartisan support for the bill on the House floor, where debate began on HR 6 last week.
Mr. Goodling's support is key in gaining the backing of other Republican moderates to turn back expected attacks by conservatives, many observers noted. For example, an amendment that would strike Title VII is anticipated.
"Some of our members have questions about bilingual education in general, '' an aide to Mr. Goodling said.
"We felt the provision was specific and narrow enough that it wouldn't detract from bilingual-education programs,'' Mr. Becerra's aide said.
The current Administration, which will make grant decisions for at least two more years, is also sympathetic to advocates' concerns.
"During the prior three administrations, we would not have felt as comfortable,'' said James J. Lyons, the executive director of NABE, adding that Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley "has made it very clear that native-language instruction is critical.''
He said the agreement was "a relatively small price to pay'' in exchange for solid support on the floor and provisions that represent "the biggest shift in federal bilingual education since 1968.''
For example, Mr. Lyons said, a provision that would give funding priority to programs that develop bilingual proficiency in all participating students--including English speakers--is a "phenomenal'' change. Bilingual-education advocates have long sought to broaden the program's focus from teaching English to fostering bilingualism.
In another victory for bilingual-education advocates, the bill would excise a three-year restriction on how long an L.E.P. student can participate in a federally funded bilingual class and a limit on how many non-L.E.P. students can be in such classrooms.
Meanwhile, educators at the NABE conference held in Los Angeles last month praised plans for a restructured Title VII.
But observers noted that proposed changes in Chapter 1 are even more significant for L.E.P. students, as the $7 billion compensatory-education program will serve far more of them than Title VII programs, which received $200 million this year.
"We'll lead the way for Chapter 1,'' Mr. Garcia said. "We'll tell people what kinds of things will work.''
The House committee agreed to strip a Chapter 1 provision that bars children from participating in the program if their low achievement stems "solely'' from language deficiencies, instead of general educational deprivation--a top priority for NABE and Hispanic groups.
HR 6 would also restructure Title VII's grant categories, an idea that both NABE and the Administration endorsed.
Currently, grants are made for specific types of programs under six distinct categories. HR 6 would abolish what educators called a "rigid'' division that prevents a grant from funding more than one type of approach. Instead, districts would apply for grants to fund development of new programs, enhancement of existing programs, or efforts to upgrade the educational program of an entire school or district to better serve L.E.P. students.
"We spend a lot of time and energy writing grants for relatively little money, applying for these little boxes,'' said Amelia McKenna, an assistant superintendent of the Los Angeles school district. "The more substantial districtwide grants will allow us more flexibility.''
HR 6 also would:
- Expand the maximum grant period from three years to five years and encourage larger grants.
- Increase states' role in Title VII, as well as their share of funds. An Administration proposal to give state officials authority to approve local applications worried bilingual-education advocates, but HR 6 would only allow them to comment.
- Set a goal of training at least 50,000 bilingual teachers by the year 2000 under the training section of Title VII.
- Eliminate separate bilingual-education technical assistance centers, as part of the Administration's plan to consolidate technical-assistance aid under several programs into 15 "supercenters.'' Bilingual-education advocates joined colleagues in other fields in arguing that expertise will be lost.