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Critics Decry N.Y. Governor's Proposal To Repeal Foreign-Language Mandate

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A proposal by Gov. George E. Pataki of New York that is intended to save schools money threatens the state's position as a national leader in foreign-language education, critics charge.

In his January budget, Mr. Pataki proposed repealing a 1984 law that requires students to complete two years of foreign-language study before leaving the 9th grade.

The move would be the first of what Mr. Pataki has pledged will be a series of efforts to lift costly mandates the state imposes on schools. Making foreign-language instruction optional for the state's more than 383,000 middle school students would save up to $80 million, state budget officials say.

"This budget includes actions to untangle the web of mandates that has choked off local initiative and cost effectiveness," a report from the Governor's budget office said.

State officials say Mr. Pataki's proposal would mean that only about 40 percent of the state's public school students would be required to study a foreign language in elementary and secondary school. These are students who intend to graduate with advanced high school diplomas conferred by the board of regents, the state's ruling education body.

A Step Back?

National advocates of foreign-language study said Mr. Pataki's repeal would reverse a longstanding commitment to providing a world-class education. New York is one of only nine states that include instruction in foreign languages in elementary curricula, according to the Joint National Committee for Languages.

Adoption of the plan "would really be a step back for New York," said Julie Inman, a policy analyst with the Washington-based group.

The value of foreign-language education has been reaffirmed in recent years by its inclusion in the national education goals and in various state reform efforts, Ms. Inman said.

A new Massachusetts law will require students to prove their proficiency in a foreign language in order to graduate. (See Education Week, Feb. 15, 1995.)

But Ms. Inman noted that New York is one of several states where "brush fires" threaten earlier gains. Other states where the inclusion of foreign language in curricular requirements is under challenge include Colorado, North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin.

In New York, critics of Mr. Pataki's proposal say research shows that foreign-language instruction works best if begun at an early age.

"It seems even ridiculous to start talking about this at a time when the economy is becoming more global," said Linda Rosenblatt, a spokeswoman for New York State United Teachers.

Savings Questioned

Opponents also charge that Mr. Pataki's cost-savings projections are inflated and would benefit districts only if they eliminated foreign-language instruction and shortened the school day, too.

In addition, critics argue that wealthy districts likely would continue foreign-language programs, while poorer districts would cut them, increasing disparities.

School officials said they would wait to see if the legislature approves Mr. Pataki's plan before making any decisions.

James J. O'Connell, the executive director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said Mr. Pataki had overstepped his authority by taking on a curriculum issue.

"I think it's a way to circumvent the role of the regents, and I think it's improper and wrong," he said.

Other school officials cheered the move, however. William J. Pape, a spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association, said forcing students in a vocational track to study a foreign language does not make sense. "The whole point is to let districts decide for themselves," he said.

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