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Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as Report: Agency Pushes Use of Bilingual Ed.

Report: Agency Pushes Use of Bilingual Ed.

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The office charged with enforcing civil rights laws for the Department of Education has overstepped its mandate and pressured schools to use or expand bilingual education, says a report from a Washington-based think tank that opposes such classes.

Federal law generally requires school districts to address the language barriers that face limited-English-proficient students and guarantee those students equal educational opportunities. But the law does not spell out whether districts must do so by providing English-language instruction or by teaching students in their native languages.

The policy brief, released late last month by the Center for Equal Opportunity, is based on a review of roughly 160 letters that the department's office for civil rights sent to districts in 1996 and 1997 outlining problems in the programs being provided to LEP students. The report was written by a former OCR program officer, Jim Littlejohn, who left the agency in 1996 after 27 years and is now an independent consultant.

For More Information:
Free copies of "Federal Control Out of Control: The Office for Civil Rights' Hidden Policies on Bilingual Education," are available by calling (202) 639-0803. The report is also available from the Center for Equal Opportunity at

The report cites excerpts from some of the OCR letters and concludes that there are "astounding" differences in how the agency's regional offices interpret federal policies and in what they require districts to do to remedy problems.

But the report also maintains that the written record does not fully reflect the extent of the agency's activity. Some OCR regional offices, it says, "use negotiating or 'technical assistance' sessions to convince school systems that bilingual education is the instructional method they should 'choose.'"

Equal Opportunity

James J. Lyons, the executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education in Washington, said it is nearly impossible to evaluate the excerpts in the report because they do not reflect the full interaction between a district and the OCR. And, he noted, the report does not address the range of state laws that address how to serve LEP students.

"If everything here is true and in context, the most this shows is that there are some apparent inconsistencies" in what the agency requires of districts, Mr. Lyons said. For example, some regional offices required districts to report more data or undergo more extensive monitoring than others. "But the covert plan to impose bilingual education on the nation is not apparent here," Mr. Lyons said.

But the underlying problem, said the president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, Linda Chavez, is that the agency's monitoring and enforcement standards are based on broad internal-policy documents cobbled together through several administrations.

OCR standards on LEP students should be clarified, subject to public comment, and formally adopted as regulations, she said.

Norma Cantu, the assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a written statement that the center's report was a "misleading interpretation" of the agency's record.

"OCR is charged with, and committed to, assuring that all students have an equal opportunity to learn. We do not require or advocate bilingual education as the only acceptable way to provide opportunities for limited-English-proficient students," Ms. Cantu said. "We assist school officials in assuring that each child learns English and has equal opportunity to participate in the academic program of the school."

Vol. 18, Issue 14, Page 25

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