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Published in Print: August 4, 1999, as Houston OKs Multilingual Ed. Policy

Houston OKs Multilingual Ed. Policy

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After weeks of heated debate, the Houston school board has approved a policy on multilingual education that has drawn the ire of civil rights advocates and many Latino elected officials.

The policy calls for students to learn English "as rapidly as individually possible," but also calls for giving all students a chance to become proficient in multiple languages. It outlines broad goals, such as increasing parental choice and involvement, and specific directions for the district, such as studying the possibility of limiting the time students spend in a bilingual program.

Policy backers say it is intended to standardize and improve programs, narrow the achievement gap between native English-speakers and non-native speakers, and produce graduates who are fluent in more than one language.

But critics say the policy unfairly targets the district's bilingual programs and emphasizes quick mastery of English at the expense of other academic areas.

Two of the board's three Hispanic members voted against the measure. Gabriel Vasquez, a co-author of the policy, was the lone Hispanic member to support it.

"The public needs to have confidence in the bilingual programs," he said. "That can't occur unless there are standards and forms of accountability, and that's what we're trying to do here."

The nine-member board, which also includes three African-Americans and three non-Hispanic whites, approved the policy by a 6-2 vote. One member was absent for the July 22 vote, which had been postponed from June.

Copycat Charges

More than half the district's 212,000 students are Hispanic; more than a quarter, or nearly 60,000 students, are considered limited-English-proficient. Those LEP students are enrolled in an array of programs, including bilingual education, where students are taught subjects in their native languages at least part of the day.

Advocacy groups have questioned the legality of the board's policy. And many observers have criticized the proposal to move students into all-English instruction once they demonstrate English reading proficiency, saying more criteria should be weighed.

Some critics have likened the policy to Proposition 227, the initiative California voters approved last year that sought to virtually eliminate bilingual education. It's a comparison policy supporters rebuff.

"Our program is not 227. We recognize children learn at different paces. We're not talking about dismantling a program," Mr. Vasquez said. Any program changes that result from the new policy will be gradual, he added.

Vol. 18, Issue 43, Page 12

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