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Conservative Groups Take Aim at Federal Bilingual Programs

By James Crawford — July 09, 2019 12 min read

A state-of-the-art fundraising message, including a genuine Mexican peso and multilingual postcards pre-addressed to members of the Congress, will be delivered to 250,000 American homes this month.

“I know the peso is worthless in the U.S.,” the message begins. ''But I enclosed it to make an important point about a billion-dollar U.S.-government program that’s worthless, too. It’s called the Bilingual Education Act.”

The letter calls for “repeal” of this “federal handout ... the biggest government-subsidized flop of all time.” It is signed by Dan C. Alexander Jr., former president of the Mobile, Ala., school board and now head of Save Our Schools, a conservative lobbying group.

This appeal—produced by Richard Viguerie, the conservative Republican fundraiser—is one of several recent broadsides aimed at bilingual instruction from outside the education community.

“Prolonged bilingual education in public schools ... threatens to divide us along language lines,” warns former U.S. Senator S. I. Hayakawa in another fundraising letter, for U.S. English, a group he launched in 1983 to promote a constitutional amendment designating English as the nation’s official language.

And a recent paper supporting that initiative, published by the Council for Inter-American Security, links bilingual education to Hispanic “separatism,” “cultural apartheid,” and the potential for “terrorism in the U.S.” The author, R. E. “Rusty” Butler, asserts that ''bilingual education ... has national security implications.”

Mr. Butler, who was in private business in Idaho at the time the article was written in 1984, now serves as press secretary to U.S. Senator Steven D. Symms of Idaho. He is also staff director of the Senate Republican task force on education and literacy chaired by Senator Symms.

U.S. English, which stops short of advocating repeal of the program, generated a preponderance of the comments recently solicited by the Education Department on its regulatory proposals to change the way it funds bilingual education by giving school districts greater “flexibility” to teach language-minority children in English.

Many of the writers vented frustrations about the use of foreign languages in their communities, their feelings of being “overrun by aliens,” excessive birth-rates and welfare costs among minorities, and other racial and ethnic complaints.

Save Our Schools, U.S. English, and the Council for Inter-American Security are all well-financed, primarily through membership dues and direct-mail solicitation, according to their spokesmen. Mr. Alexander claims a membership of 150,000 for S.O.S., with each member paying a minimum of $15 annually.

U.S. English reports that its budget for last year was $2.4 million. A spokesman said that figure would climb considerably in 1986 because membership has expanded by 65 percent. And the C.I.S. plans to spend $600,000 this year, mostly on foreign-policy research.

‘Politics of Exclusion’

The rapid growth of these organizations, as well as their fundraising clout, has alarmed advocates of bilingual education, who regard “English-only” activities as exploiting racist and xenophobic attitudes.

“It’s un-American,” said Jame’ J. Lyons, legislative counsel for the National Association for Bilingual Education. “It’s the politics of exclusion these people are playing--educationally, politically, economically.”

“Hate and fear, the twin messages of U.S. English, are the easiest things to package,” he added. “They don’t require thought.”

The English-as-official-language campaign has stalled in the U.S. Congress. But it is gathering momentum at the local level, especially in Florida and California, where such resolutions have polarized several communities along ethnic lines

U.S. English, whose membership has grown from 100,000 last April to 165,000 today, according to Executive Director Gerda Bikales, has usually been at the center of these controversies.

The Florida leader of U.S. English set off a furor among Hispanics last year by opposing all government services now provided in Spanish, including bilingual operators for the emergency 911 number. Nevertheless, more than 20 municipalities in the state have adopted English as their official language since last fall.

In Fillmore, Calif., a similar resolution, which was sponsored by critics of bilingual education and supported by U.S. English, set off a bitter campaign to oust several city-council members. Led primarily by the town’s Hispanic minority, the recall initiative failed last week by a 2-to-1 margin

Meanwhile, U.S. English is working to gather 900,000 signatures by May 12 (630,000 are required) for a ballot initiative in November to make English the official language of California. Two years ago, by a 72 percent margin, the state’s voters approved a non-binding resolution disapproving of bilingual ballots.

“For over 200 years, English has been the unifying force in this country,” said Stanley Diamond, the group’s West Coast director. “But there are now attempts by some political leaders to turn this into a bilingual and bicultural state. We think this is the road to disaster.”

‘Legal Implications’

By contrast, Hispanic leaders view the U.S. English campaign not only as an insult to their communities and an unnecessary source of ethnic friction, but also as a threat to their constituents’ rights.

“The way the California resolution is written, it’s kind of a runaway truck,” said John Trasvina, a staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “Any state resident could go to court to get rid of Spanish-speaking 911 operators, prohibit public libraries from buying Spanish-language books, bar government advertising in Spanish publications, and so on.”

So far, such draconian effects have been averted in the five states where English is already the official language, he said, citing a 1923 U.S. Supreme Court precedent, Meyer v. Nebraska. In striking down restrictions on German bilingual education, the high court said: “The protection of the Constitution extends to all, to those who speak other languages as well as those born with English on the tongue.”

But Mr. Trasvina noted that representatives of U.S. English have made far-reaching proposals to restrict the use of foreign languages.

Mr. Diamond, for example, has campaigned against the Spanish Yellow Pages and other Spanish-language advertising by public utilities. Only English should be used by these “quasi-public corporations,” Mr. Diamond argues.

In “an open letter to all the governors in the United States” last year, Terry Robbins, a leader of U.S. English in Dade County, Fla., opposed bilingual menues posted in McDonald’s restaurants. Also, she objected to Spanish services provided by public hospitals, including instructions for patients recovering from surgery and for pre- and post-natal care.

Robert Melby, a Tampa optometrist who recently resigned as head of Florida English to run for the state Senate, wants to eliminate 911 services to non-English-speakers, even if it would result in loss of life. “Everybody calling the emergency line should have to learn enough English so they can say ‘fire’ or ‘emergency’ and give the address,” he said.

No ‘Company Line’

Ms. Bikales maintains that these proposals to restrict other languages do not reflect the positions of U.S. English, even though they are advocated by individual leaders of the group.

“I do not put out a company line that everybody who says he’s a member of U.S. English buys,” she said. “It’s a free country.”

The official-language resolutions are “very benign,” she added. “It seems to me there’s nothing less controversial than saying, ‘English is the official language.’ The controversy is fueled by the other side that says, ‘No, that isn’t so.’”

If passed at the state or national level, the amendments “would primarily serve as a guide to the courts” and the legislatures, she argued. For example, the initiative will help the California legislature “read the public will” when considering an extension of the state’s bilingual-education law next year, Ms. Bikales predicted.

U.S. English would like to limit the time immigrant children spend in bilingual instruction, she said, because “it gives a false signal to parents as to what’s expected of them and the necessity of learning English.”

“If this were a one-year program, we would have no objection. We don’t think it’s a tragedy if there’s a teacher that speaks the native language. We’re not fanatical.”

“But if you keep a child in a bilingual class that goes on upward of three years, there is a long delay in the socialization of the child into the American mainstream,” she said.

‘Out of Control’

Ms. Bikales rejected the suggestion that U.S. English is promoting racial and ethnic disharmony, but conceded that “the situation is somewhat out of control.”

“We’ve got nearly 165,000 members,” she said. “This is a mass movement. Anybody can and does join U.S. English.”

“We do our very very best to put out responsible ideas. We’re not hatemongers. Senator Hayakawa himself is of Japanese descent,” Ms. Bikales added.

“You’ve got this wide-open situation, with hundreds of thousands of people in a state of utter frustration, just watching English erode under their very feet, standing on shifting sands with the government not giving a damn,” she said. “So you’re going to have an explosive situation.”

Asked in an interview whether U.S. English had taken steps to combat racist attitudes toward immigrants, Ms. Bikales replied: “Such as what? Well, I’m talking to you.”

But Ernest Morales, former mayor of Fillmore and a leader of the unsuccessful recall campaign, charges that U.S. English has exacerbated an ugly situation in his community of 10,500 just north of Los Angeles.

Approval of an “English-only” resolution has “divided the inhabitants of the city,” he said. “Friendships have been fractured as a result. It has needlessly brought skeletons out of the closet” that have long haunted the Hispanic community.

Until the late 1940’s, according to Mr. Morales, Hispanics were discriminated against in public facilities, and segregated Hispanic schools enforced rules against speaking Spanish on school playgrounds.

A similar polarization has developed in Monterey Park, but the target of “English-only” advocates has been the Asian business community, where Chinese-language signs are commonplace. In November, citing a legal technicality, the city council rejected a petition, supported by U.S. English, to place an English-as-official-language proposition on the ballot.

Mr. Diamond blames these racial flare-ups on “political opportunists” on the other side of the issue. He denies that the official-language initiatives represent an attempt to force immigrants to use English.

“It’s not coercion,” he insisted, “but a message that in order to participate, to function in this society, the way is fluency in English.”

‘Ultimate Liberal Tool’

Mr. Alexander, president of S.O.S., as well as its parent group, the Taxpayers’ Education Lobby, also touches on the theme that “English-our common language-has unified the American people.”

“Bilingual education,” he said, “is the ultimate liberal tool to divide the people in our country-to destroy our nation’s melting pot.”

His central message, however, is opposition to funding the program at a time of mounting budget deficits.

“Both Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and President Reagan seem to be on our side,” his fundraising letter says. “The big problem is they don’t sense there is any support from the American taxpayers to repeal bilingual education.”

“On the other hand, liberal bureaucrats in government and the National Education Association (the radical N.E.A. Teacher Union) have fought to keep this wasteful government program,” the letter claims. “And that’s why it’s so important for you to sign the petition to President Reagan.”

Reached at the Viguerie Company, where he has a temporary office, Mr. Alexander explained: “I don’t think we can afford to lower the degree of education for children that are now in the schools because of an influx of students from the outside. The government can’t be the panacea to all the problems of the people in this country, let alone the world.”

He indicated he was unfamiliar, however, with several aspects of bilingual-education policy, such as the Supreme Court ruling in Lau v. Nichols that limited-English-proficient students are entitled to special educational services. He also said he was uncertain about the amount of money the federal government spends on bilingual education each year.

Asked about several misleading statements on bilingual education in the fundraising packet—such as a suggestion that federal grants support native-language instruction in 70 languages in one Virginia school district—Mr. Alexander said: “Sometimes, I guess, with direct mail we get a little carried away.”

First Foray

The recent letter marked his first foray into bilingual education, according Mr. Alexander, but he is optimistic, he said, that it will prove a lucrative field for fundraising. If so, the appeal will be sent to 2 million more homes, he added.

Besides the peso, the elaborate package features pre-addressed messages to the recipient’s U.S. Senators and Representatives in Vietnamese, Spanish, and English. The “prospect mailing” of 250,000 letters cost 70-75 cents each to mail, Mr. Alexander said.

Nancy Kochuk, a spokesman for the N.E.A., said the letter misrepresents the union’s viewpoint on bilingual education. While the N.E.A. advocates a continuation of federal support for the program, it emphasizes the need for “local control” and “flexibility” for school districts’ bilingual programs.

Mr. Alexander said that early next month, his group plans to publish a book critical of the N.E.A. entitled “Who’s Ruining Our Schools?” Eventually, the goal of the s.o.s. Research and Educational Foundation is to become “a Heritage Foundation of education,” he said, referring to the conservative Washington think tank that has risen to prominence during the current Administration.

“We’re no big outfit now, but maybe some day we can build us a big eight-story building down on 16th Street and stare across” at the N.E.A.'S Washington headquarters, Mr. Alexander said.

‘National Security’

The Council for Inter-American Security sees bilingual education as a threat to “national security” because it encourages Spanish-speaking “enclaves in this country,” said Michael Waller, a C.I.S. spokesman.

“Cultural apartheid means ‘separate development,’ keeping them separate because of the language barrier,” he argued. ''If these people are not assimilated into American society, they may accept charges by extremists that they are being exploited as ‘Third World people.’”

“‘Terrorist groups” are now seeking to restore “old Mexico, which they call Aztlan,” Mr. Waller added. For these reasons, he said, the group opposes any native-language instruction, because it “encourages students not to learn English.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 19, 1986 edition of Education Week


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