Education Opinion

First Amendment Rights Are ‘Crucial’ In Educating Language-Minority Pupils

By Stephen Arons — October 01, 1986 6 min read

The continuing debate over the federal role in bilingual education is being conducted in an atmosphere almost completely devoid of an understanding of what is at stake. Beneath the surface concern for such issues as which method of English instruction works best lies a widespread assumption that limited-English-proficient students should sacrifice their cultural heritage as the price of a public education.

Such imposition of beliefs and values violates the principles of the First Amendment. And even if the Reagan Administration fails in its efforts to reduce the emphasis on native-language instruction in federally funded programs for LEP students, the situation will remain a depressing one.

We will still be living with a massive pattern of dropouts, disservice, discrimination, and educational deprivation directed against children whose first language is not English. We will still be condoning widespread violations of the fundamental rights of language-minority families. And we will still be engaged in the self-destructive squandering of the diversity that is a pluralistic country’s most valuable national resource.

To this tally must be added the effects of I that misguided group U.S. English, which is seeking to amend the Constitution to make English the official language of the United States. The result is that the debate over language policy in the schools is beginning to sound startlingly similar to the historically discredited efforts to create an I official religion and an official race in America.

The federal courts have contributed to the public misunderstanding of the purposes and effects of governmental policy toward limited-English-speaking children. None of the relevant cases grounds its provision of benefits upon a constitutional entitlement. Yet any denial of the right to communicate one’s primary culture from one generation to another makes the First Amendment an appropriate and powerful tool for understanding and remedying the damage currently being done to language-minority families.

In fact, in applying a First Amendment freedom to express, receive, and transmit family values and beliefs to language-minority students, the government would be doing nothing more than recognizing the equal moral worth of all American families and their equal entitlement to raise their children according to their own best judgment.

Over the past decade, the public and the scholarly community have become increasingly aware of the degree to which schooling is a process of socialization that inculcates the beliefs and assumptions upon which a person’s world view is based. Given this fact, many have concluded that freedom of individual conscience and consciousness often conflicts with the requirements of a school system that must be responsive to the majority.

Viewing schooling as socialization makes clear that it is the integrity of family values that is at issue when the majority seeks to impose itself through schooling. The courts have not often perceived this, but when they have, family values have won out.

For example, when the state of Oregon sought to make family choice of a nongovernment school illegal in 1922, the U.S. Supreme Court, in striking down the public-school- only statute, said, “The child is not the mere creature of the State.” In another example of the clash between state and family, the Court in 1943 found the compulsory flag salute in public schools unconstitutional because requiring such a confession of belief invaded the “sphere of intellect and spirit” that the First Amendment reserves to individuals.

The beneficiaries of clear legal thinking about how to make this intellectual and spiritual freedom consistent with compulsory public education have included those opposed to religious observances in public schools, groups like the Amish and some fundamentalist Christians whose religious values are not reflected in the public-school curriculum, home-schooling families (both secular and religious), and students and teachers asserting the right to communicate and learn free of government censorship or regulation.

The message of all these cases, and of the growing movement for equality of choice in schooling, is that every family has the constitutional right--without government interference-- to inculcate its values in its children so long as those values do not themselves contravene the Constitution. Language-minority families may certainly lay claim to this right, and perhaps with more justification than any other group.

Because language is at the very core of the expression and transmission of cultural values, and because the individual’s identity and sense of self-worth are so closely tied to both language and school socialization, family rights under the First Amendment are crucial to language-minority families.

When a language-minority child is deprived of access to a usable and nondestructive education, it is this self-worth and these forms of individual expression and cultural integrity that are at stake.

The child who does not find his or her language and culture reflected and respected in school is subjected to a humiliation and a stigmatization that cuts as deep as any religious persecution, any racism, or any censorship of family beliefs. If the very essence of one’s culture and one’s self is undercut by dissonance between home and school and hostility from public-education policy, it can hardly be expected that a successful school career will be the result.

That is why many federal court opinions in bilingual-education and the tenor of the current debate over bilingual education are so fundamentally wrong in their assumptions. For language-minority families, the absence of choice between programs that stress assimilation and those that help preserve the cultural values of these families amounts to a declaration that both their children and their culture are second-class.

The damage done by this hostility to family choice for language-minority children is of the same magnitude as the damage done by racial segregation in schooling. The Court put it most forcefully in Brown v. Board of Education:

"[Stigmatizing children] solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”

The only way to prevent this kind of damage from being done to children, families, and subcultures is to respect the choices of individual language-minority families about how they want their children educated. That is why it is so ironic that the same Administration that is hawking family choice in Chapter 1 programs should, by misstating the issue, be attempting to cut off the First Amendment right to choice of language-minority families under the banner of “flexibility” and expanded local options.

Once it is recognized both publicly and legally that it is the integrity of family values, the sense of self of students, and the core principles of the freedom of belief and expression that are at stake in the debate over bilingual education, it becomes clear why the constitutional protections of the First Amendment must apply to language-minority families. It also becomes clear why we have no more right to use schooling to impose an official language than we had in trying to impose an official religion or an official race.

The attack on bilingual/bicultural education is the work of those who neither understand history nor respect the rights of families to preserve and pass on their values and beliefs. Unless we are able to think about language rights as we have about religion and race, we will be bequeathing to our children a legacy of unresolvable conflict over values as bitter as that of slavery and Jim Crow segregation.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1986 edition of Education Week