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Bilingual Education Column

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A Texas judge's remarks to a mother who spoke to her child in Spanish have sparked a national controversy. Bilingual-education advocates have asked the judge to apologize to all Hispanics, and have criticized him for a lack of understanding of their field.

State District Judge Samuel C. Kiser of Amarillo handed down a ruling last month that ordered a Mexican-American mother to "take any and all steps necessary" to ensure that her daughter learns English.

Language was not the focus of the case, which centered on parental-visitation rights and custody of the 5-year-old girl. However, Judge Kiser's remarks at a June hearing surfaced recently in a local newspaper and drew reaction far beyond the borders of the Lone Star state.

"If she starts 1st grade with the other children and cannot even speak the language that the teachers and the other children speak and she's a full-blood American citizen, you're abusing that child and you're relegating her to the position of a housemaid," Judge Kiser told the mother.

"Now, get this straight," he said. "You start speaking English to that child because if she doesn't do good in school, then I can remove her because it's not in her best interest to be ignorant."

Although the 1st-grade child is enrolled in a bilingual-education program, her father worried that he was the only person teaching his daughter English.

Advocacy groups such as the National Council of La Raza and the National Association for Bilingual Education said the judge's comments demonstrate a serious misunderstanding of bilingual education, which aims to preserve a student's native language while teaching English and core subjects.

"All this mother wants for her child is to grow up to be bilingual," said James J. Lyons, nabe's executive director. "She wants the best for her child. To characterize that as abuse is mind-boggling."

While Judge Kiser apologized to housekeepers in a statement last month for his reference to their occupation, La Raza has called for him to also apologize to all Hispanics. Even U.S. English, a group that has criticized bilingual education, said the judge was "well-intentioned, but misguided."

Texas Attorney General Dan Morales issued a statement criticizing the judge and emphasized that speaking to a child in a language other than English is not abuse.

Advocates said last week they plan to seek an official reprimand of the judge.

--Lynn Schnaiberg

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