Language and Program Limits at Issue Across States

By Lynn Schnaiberg — April 30, 1997 2 min read

The Denver school district is not alone in grappling with the politically charged issue of how best to educate students who speak a language other than English.

In districts such as Houston and San Francisco, bilingual education continues to enjoy support from the community and school officials, said James J. Lyons, the executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education, an advocacy group based in Washington. But recent moves in Massachusetts, California, and Connecticut show a desire by policymakers to let schools offer alternatives to bilingual education.

Increasingly, in an era of tight budgets and scarce supplies of bilingual teachers, the debate is focused on how much the student is being taught in his native language and how long the student stays in a given program.

“We’ve seen a constant string of criticism directed at this program. It’s not new,” Mr. Lyons said. “I’m not so sure some of these people are as concerned about education as they are about ideology and politics.”

Earlier this month, Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld proposed a bill that would authorize state takeovers of districts that failed to move limited-English-proficient students out of bilingual education within three years.

The Republican governor’s proposal, which faces an uphill climb in the Democratic-controlled legislature, also would grant schools more flexibility in the kinds of programs they offer to language-minority students, including programs in which students are taught largely in English.

State law now requires districts with 20 or more LEP students who speak the same language to set up a transitional-bilingual-education program. In general, such programs teach students academic subjects using both their native language and English, though how much instruction is provided in each language can vary substantially from classroom to classroom. (“Bill To Ease Mandate for Bilingual Education Under Attack in Conn.,” March 26, 1997.)

Setting Limits

“The original purpose of bilingual education was to allow some students to learn academic subjects like math, science, and history in their native language, allowing them to keep up until they were fluent in English,” Mr. Weld said at an April 17 news conference touting his proposal. “But bilingual education today looks more like a cultural-studies program, and kids are missing out on a higher quality of education.”

In California, school board members of the 27,000-student Orange Unified district voted this month to pursue a state waiver that would allow them to start an English-immersion program. If approved, the district would join three other small Orange County districts that have taken advantage of a 2-year-old state school board policy that lets them opt of providing bilingual education.

The legislature, meanwhile, is considering competing bills that seek to revamp state rules on educating LEP students. One plan favors district flexibility; another would require substantial instruction in the student’s primary language.

In Connecticut, Republican Gov. John G. Rowland earlier this year suggested eliminating the state’s mandate that schools provide eligible students with bilingual education. Lawmakers there also are considering several bills that would make English the state’s official language. (“HEADLINE,” March 26, 1997.)