Divided Advisory Group Backs Bennett on Bilingual Education

By James Crawford — February 12, 1986 6 min read

The National Advisory and Coordinating Council on Bilingual Education, despite an acrimonious debate over its mission, has united behind a legislative proposal by Secretary of Education William J. Bennett to increase federal funding for alternatives to transitional bilingual education.

In a stormy meeting here Jan. 27-28, the council approved a draft of its annual report to the Congress that recommends removing a limit on grants for “alternative approaches” under Title VII of the Bilingual Education Act--currently set at 4 percent of program spending. There was only one dissenting vote.

The 20-member panel voted unanimously to endorse Mr. Bennett’s initiative to give greater flexibility to local communities in meeting the needs of limited-English-proficient children. By an 8-to-7 vote, it called on the Congress to increase funding for bilingual education.

But the council declined to vote on a recommendation for intensified efforts to identify and serve L.E.P. students in light of recent studies that suggest many language-minority students are receiving no special services.

Robert Fournier, the council member who made the recommendation, reacted bitterly when it was passed over. “This should be called the National Council on English Education,” he said after the meeting. “Tb call it ‘the Council on Bilingual Education’ is a misnomer.” Mr. Fournier noted that in his home state of New Hampshire, which has a rapidly growing Hispanic population, school districts offer no bilingual instruction and only “helter-skelter” E.S.L. programs.

He also cited a recent study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which found that less than one-half of language-minority students with below-average reading abilities were enrolled in either bilingual or E.S.L. classes.

The council declined to consider Mr. Fournier’s proposal after Paul Balach, an official in the Education Department’s office of bilingual education and minority language affairs, told the meeting that ‘’97 percent of the children that are identified as L.E.P. are receiving special services.” This finding came from a study by the department’s office of planning, budget, and evaluation, he said.

Controversial Council

NACCBE, which advises the Secretary on bilingual-education policy and regulations, has been controversial since Mr. Bennett named its members last July. Three appointees--Howard L. Hurwitz, Robert E. Rossier, and Anthony Torres, the council’s chairman--have been critics of transitional bilingual education and advocates of English-only forms of instruction.

These members’ outspoken opposition to the 1984 Bilingual Education Act prompted Representative Henry B. Gonzalez, Democrat of Texas, to propose a resolution expressing Congressional disapproval of the appointments. Neither the House nor the Senate has acted on the measure.

At the council’s recent meeting, Mr. Hurwitz expressed with Education Department officials for failing to move faster in seeking legislation to lift the 4 percent cap on alternative-program funding.

“If there is no bill before the Congress, you are just spitting in the wind,” Mr. Hurwitz told Carol Pendás Whitten, director of OBEMLA.

Under a bipartisan compromise worked out in 1984, funding for programs other than transitional bilingual education—such as “structured immersion” or E.S.L.--are limited to 4 percent of Title VII grants up to $140 million annually. Above that amount, one-half of the funds are earmarked for alternative methods, except that such grants may not exceed 10 percent of the overall appropriation.

Secretary Bennett has said he would request additional funding for bilingual education if the Congress removes the cap. The Reagan Administration’s 1987 budget calls for $143 million, the same appropriation as this year.

Bilingual ‘Backlash’

The colorfully expressed views of Mr. Hurwitz, including his recent article, “The Case Against Bilingual Education,” in a conservative tabloid, provoked criticism from some NACCBE members attending the meeting.

”We are not [supposed to be] against bilingual education,” said Esther Eisenhower, coordinator of E.S.L. programs in Fairfax County, Va., schools. She criticized some fellow council members for implying “that anyone who’s in favor of bilingual education is an American traitor.”

”Basically, all of us [on NACCBE] say we need local options” in choosing teaching methods, Ms. Eisenhower said during a break between sessions. “Is it proper to have one methodology when we have a linguistically diverse population? No.”

”But there’s a backlash [against] transitional bilingual education,” she added, “because it has been forced down our throats for so long.”

Hugh C. Alban of Florida’s Miami-Dade Community College disputed Ms. Eisenhower’s characterization of the council majority’s views. “Bilingual education isn’t a dirty word here,” he said. “There’s plenty of diversity. Most people here are open-minded. They believe it works in many cases, but that alternatives are needed.”

Mr. Torres, who is superintendent of schools in Sauk Village, Ill., also disputed the idea that “this council has already prejudged [the issues] and is a rubber stamp.” This year’s council membership is “one of the most diverse—geographically, ethnically, and philosophically,” he said.

Referring to the often unruly sessions, Mr. Torres added, “If it was a rubber-stamp group, my job would be a lot easier.”

The two-day meeting featured heated exchanges over the language of the draft report. Mr. Hurwitz, the principal author and editor, at one point accused Ms. Eisenhower of “attempting to emasculate the report so that it means nothing to anybody.” He later retracted the comment.

E.S.L. Experience

In an interview, Mr. Hurwitz outlined his views on the superiority of E.S.L. instruction to bilingual education, based on his experience as principal of a Brooklyn high school attended by students from more than 40 countries.

“There was never a time in my personal experience that a child didn’t learn English in a year and a half,” he said. “The biggest mistake you can make is to spend time teaching subjects in a foreign language.”

“If you try to say bilingual education is better than E.S.L., I say you can’t prove it,” he added. “My evaluation of educational research is that it’s pure garbage. In the field of education, there’s no such thing as an objective study.”

Research on bilingual education is hamstrung by the impossibility of appropriate control groups, he argued. “Garbage in, garbage out. I hold these studies in total contempt.”

Mr. Hurwitz bristled at calls from bilingual-education advocates that he be removed from the council. “The leaders of these organizations have been vitriolic,” he said. “I have done more to promote the education of Hispanics as a high-school principal than any of them. So it is nothing less than sheer libel to suggest that people like myself, who are wholly committed to E.S.L., have anything else than the total interest of Hispanic children at heart. We differ on methods, but not goals.”

Bilingual education, he charged, is merely “a way for militant Hispanic politicians to perpetuate Spanish so they can be re-elected from their barrios.”

The council declined to release its draft report until a final version has been cleared with individual members. By law, the document must be transmitted to the Congress by March 31.

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