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Bennett’s Plan for Bilingual Overhaul Heats Up Debate

By James Crawford — February 12, 1986 9 min read

The Education Department’s plan to overhaul the way it funds bilingual education has set off a politically charged debate that extends beyond issues of educational effectiveness.

Representative Matthew G. Martinez, a California Democrat who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, called the department’s proposed rules “an act of war upon our children” and an attempt “to dismantle” the bilingual-education program.

Gerda Bikales, executive director of U.S. English, a group that has lobbied for a constitutional amendment making English the nation’s official language, praised the revised rules as “very helpful to local schools and to children in need of learning English.”

The debate was reflected in comments on regulations proposed Nov. 22 that would revise criteria for awarding grants to school districts.

Among a host of changes, the new rules would allow districts to increase the English-language component of bilingual-education programs, encourage them to “mainstream” limited-English-proficient students more rapidly, and require them to shoulder an increasing fiscal burden for bilingual programs.

The proposals are part of an “initiative” announced last fall by Secretary of Education William J. Bennett in a speech decrying the failure of bilingual education “after 17 years of federal involvement and 1.7 billion in federal funding.” The Secretary called for “greater flexibility” for districts in serving the diverse needs of L.E.P. children.

In written comments to the department’s office of bilingual education and minority language affairs, supporters of the proposed rules argued that districts need more flexibility because “no one method” of teaching language-minority students has been proven most effective.

Many congratulated Mr. Bennett for taking the first step toward “legislative reform” or repeal of the 1984 Bilingual Education Act.

Robert E. Rossier, a member of the National Advisory and Coordinating Council on Bilingual Education and an outspoken critic of teaching L.E.P. students in languages other than English, hailed the proposed flexibility for local educational agencies.

‘Exploiting’ the Act

“The key idea in the entire [regulatory] package,” Mr. Rossier said, “is that of exploiting the language of the act, which gives local education agencies ‘substantial discretion to determine the extent of native language to use in transitional bilingual-education programs.’ ”

Opponents of the proposals charged that the Secretary’s interpretation of the law would subvert the “expressed intent of Congress” and “jeopardize the educational rights and opportunities” of L.E.P. students.

A provision that calls for the use of native language “only to the extent necessary” is a restriction expressly forbidden by the 1984 law, according to comments prepared by the National Association for Bilingual Education.

Critics also disputed Mr. Bennett’s claim that the rules would promote flexibility in serving students’ diverse needs.

“Contrary to the expressed objective of increasing the ‘flexibility’ available to local school officials,” said Elsa Santillán of the California Association for Bilingual Education, “the proposed regulations actually impose new restrictions, not contemplated in the act.”

“These restrictions involve the extent to which schools provide instruction in a child’s native language and the duration of a child’s enrollment in a [federally funded] program,” she said.

Several critics argued that the pressure to “mainstream” students prematurely could be detrimental to their education not only in English, but in other subjects as well.

‘One-Way’ Flexibility

“The Secretary only supports flexibility when it goes in one direction"--that is, against transitional bilingual education-said John Trasvina, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Exemplary bilingual programs that use little English in the early grades would be unfairly penalized, he said at a Capitol Hill press briefing.

Ms. Santillán added that the proposal ignores one of the two statutory objectives of bilingual-education programs funded under Title VII of the law: to help children “to meet grade-promotion and graduation standards.” Instead, the language concentrates only on the objective of achieving “full proficiency in English.”

“Since the Bilingual Education Act has never reached more than 10 percent of the potential eligible student population, we question the narrowing of [that] population,” commented Augustus F. Hawkins, the Democratic chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, and William F. Goodling, the panel’s second-ranking Republican.

The committee, which rewrote the act two years ago, is seen as unlikely to sit still for any major reinterpretations of the law when the final regulations are issued--probably in early April, according to an OBEMLA official.

Mr. Trasvina added: “We’re fully prepared to take the litigation route to make sure the department follows the law. The Secretary may be different this year, but the law isn’t.”

At a press briefing last week on 1987 budget proposals, Mr. Bennett responded to the charge that he wants to “dismantle” the bilingual-education program, saying, “As I have said continually and emphatically, we will maintain our $143-million bilingual-education effort.” The proposed figure is the same as the 1986 spending level.

Organized Efforts

A majority of the comments came from outside the educational community, apparently reflecting organized efforts on both sides of the issue. Two groups generated the bulk of these responses: Cherokee Indians in eastern Oklahoma, who wrote several hundred letters to protest a provision they interpret as prohibiting bilingual-education grants to Native American programs, and the U.S. English group.

The Cherokees were reacting to a proposed change in the definition of “limited English proficiency” that would link it to use of a “home language” other than English. Many Native American children now considered L.E.P. come from homes where English is spoken--a classification the Congress authorized in its 1978 amendments to the bilingual law.

“I am a concerned parent,” wrote Alvin Beaver of Bunch, Okla., “who is against the change’ in bilingual education. Please leave it the way it is. It is our right to have our culture in the classroom.”

Many responses inspired by U.S. English, identifiable because they repeated catch phrases and passages from the group’s own formal comments, expressed frustration with the growth of non-English-speaking populations. This view is exemplified by the following comment from Rolling Hills, Calif.:

“We appreciate the constructive approach the Department of Education is taking .... We in Southern California are overrun with all sorts of aliens, Asian, Spanish, Cuban, Middle East and it is an insurmountable task if these millions are not required to learn English as the basic language-many are illerate [sic] in their native language.”

“We fear that bilingual education will result in a dual language system as now exists in Canada--English and French--and it just won’t work.”

Educators Respond

Only a handful of school-district officials, teachers, and representatives of state education departments submitted their views before the comment period ended Jan. 28.

“I think the districts are very much afraid,” said James J. Lyons, legislative counsel of N.A.B.E., citing the high priority the Reagan Administration has given to its bilingual “initiative.” With only about one-third of bilingual programs funded each year, districts fear that speaking out could destroy their chances to win grants, he said.

The educators who responded, as groups and individuals, were roughly split between critics and defenders of “transitional bilingual education.” Under the act, 96 percent of total grant funds must be awarded to support this methodology.

Some district officials, such as Dan G. Lunsford, superintendent of the Orange County (N.C.) Schools, welcomed the idea of “greater flexibility” in meeting the needs of L.E.P. students. But at the same time, he opposed a proposal that districts assume greater responsibility for future financing.

“The local educational agencies are subject to immigration patterns beyond their control, and need strong assistance to provide the necessary service to these students who meet the criteria,” Mr. Lunsford said. “I disagree with the requirement to assume financial responsibility for all services prior to appropriate language transition.”

‘Funds Allow Freedom’

“Although the regulations may be ‘loosened,’ the ‘loosening’ must be adequately funded,” added Claudia Mansfield, of the American Association of School Administrators. “Unless funds allow freedom, there is no freedom.”

The law requires districts to demonstrate “capacity and commitment” to sustain bilingual-education programs after federal grants are terminated or reduced. Under the proposed rules, the main criterion would become “increased commitment of local funds over the project period.”

In poor areas of the country, critics said, this requirement would be especially difficult for districts to meet. “Based on the economic reality of Indian schools, a rationale for proving capacity-building that calls for evidence of increased local expenditure will only serve to force Indian programs out of existence,” commented Cheryl K. Crawley, director of programs for the Hardin (Mont.) Public Schools.

Others raised concerns about proposed grant criteria that would penalize districts that had previously been awarded grants and would reduce the number of competitive points awarded for teacher qualifications.

The New York State Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages applauded “the greater latitude for school districts” in the proposed rules, while advocating increased funding of English-as-a-Second-Language programs.

“A free-standing E.S.L. program is an effective approach to the education of L.E.P. students, and schools providing such programs must have equal access to federal, state, and local funds designated for L.E.P. students,” the group said.

Teaching Experiences

Several comments came from teachers who cited their professional experiences in attempts to prove the merits or demerits of bilingual education. Some proponents wrote letters to Secretary Bennett asking him to visit their schools to witness the effectiveness of their bilingual programs.

Others expressed negative conclusions. “I have taught bilingual programs of many types and am convinced that the fastest learning occurs with the total immersion system,” said Cordelia Schroeder of Houston, Tex.

“In my opinion, bilingual education is a crutch that only hinders students. It is even more unnecessary with the Hispanic students who are only able to speak “Tex-Mex,’ not proper Spanish,” she said.

Richard D. Buehler, an E.S.L. teacher from Brooklyn, N.Y., wrote: “My experience has convinced me that [E.S.L.] is a highly successful and efficient method of meeting the needs of young immigrants. [But] with all the money going for bilingual instruction, it has often been difficult to keep our unique program afloat.”

“Bilingualism is, at best, an unproven concept,” he argued. “The studies I’ve seen are generally inconclusive .... Would the medical profession mandate an unproven medicine for a disease? Of course not! Why then does the federal government mandate an unproven educational system?”

About 20 students of a 6th-grade class in Healdsburg, Calif., called on Mr. Bennett to consider the success of their bilingual program before making up his mind.

“You may not have had a chance to see my class in action,” a non-Hispanic student told the Secretary. “Now try to put yourself in a class where everyone spoke a different language. How would you feel? Ha! It would make you feel rotten.”

“A lot of my new friends are Spanish, and I can talk to them,” the student added. “So next time you say something, think. about it.

A version of this article appeared in the February 12, 1986 edition of Education Week


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