Bilingual Policies Have Failed, Need Revisions, Bennett Says
Asserting that federal bilingual-education efforts have failed to benefit non-English-speaking children, Secretary of Education William J. Bennett last week announced that he would propose regulatory and legislative changes to give school districts more flexibility in teaching such students.
"After 17 years of federal involvement, and after $1.7 billion in federal funding, we have no evidence that the children whom we sought to help—that the children who deserve our help—have benefited," Mr. Bennett said in a speech prepared for delivery in New York City to the Association for
a Better New York, a group of civic leaders. His office released the text of his remarks.
Mr. Bennett, in his first policy statement on the issue, said Congressionally mandated restrictions on teaching methods have hampered effective bilingual instruction.
At a press conference here following the speech, Undersecretary Gary L. Bauer said the Reagan Administration may recommend more bilingual-education money if the Congress agrees to give districts flexibility in its use. "Flexibility and more resources could go hand in hand," he said.
The program's budget this year is about $173 million, and it will probably remain at this level in fiscal 1986.
The Congress last year for the first time authorized the use of federal funds for teaching methods other than transitional bilingual education—in which a student learns basic skills in his native language while studying the English language.
But lawmakers rejected an Administration proposal to eliminate the mandate for the transitional bilingual method and instead earmarked 4 percent of bilingual-education money for alternative instructional methods—such as "structured immersion" and English-as-a-second-language programs, which are designed to teach English faster than the transitional method.
Spokesmen for bilingual-education organizations criticized Mr. Bennett's speech, saying increased flexibility could hurt the program. James J. Lyons, legislative counsel for the National Association for Bilingual Education, called Mr. Bauer's suggested trade-off a "false alternative." He added that "the issue is resources, not flexibility."
Representative John McCain, Republican of Arizona and co-author of last year's compromise, said he doubted that the Congress would be receptive to Mr. Bennett's proposals. "At the moment, I just don't see the mood of Congress to reopen" the issue, Representative McCain said.
The chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, Democrat of California, expressed concern that regulatory changes may thwart Congressional intent. "I would expect the Secretary to respect the law, or we will be forced to pursue every available legal avenue," he said.
Mr. Bennett may be invited before the committee to discuss his proposals, said a committee press aide, Jay Butler.
Transitional bilingual education, Mr. Bennett suggested, has fostered students' "cultural pride" at the expense of learning English.
"We need to clarify for ourselves our national commitment to [our] goal," Mr. Bennett said. "Paradoxically, we have over the last two decades become less clear about the goal—English language literacy—at the same time as we have become more intrusive as to method."
"But there ought to be no confusion or embarrassment over our goal,'' he said. "The rise in ethnic consciousness, the resurgence of cultural pride in recent decades is a healthy thing. The traditions we bring with us, that our forefathers brought with them to this land, are too worthwhile to be discarded. But a sense of cultural pride cannot come at the price of proficiency in English, our common language."
Scores Remain Low
And while he lauded gains by Hispanic students on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the Secretary said their scores "remain unacceptably below the national average," and he cited Hispanic students' "tragically high" dropout rate.
School districts coping with an influx of non-Hispanic ethnic groups, he said, are further hampered by the current restrictions on instructional methods.
"We believe that local flexibility will serve the needs of these students far more effectively than intrusive federal regulation," he said. "Does it not make sense to allow school districts to pursue the educational method they judge most promising to teach their non-English speaking students English?"
Mr. Bauer, in the press conference here, said that 25 percent of the applicants for 1985 funds competed for 4 percent of the money set aside for alternative instructional methods.
Mr. Bennett's speech traced the history of federal bilingual-education efforts, from Congressional passage in 1968 of the Bilingual Education Act—Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965—through the landmark 1974 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lau v. Nichols, guar4anteeing special instruction for non-English-speaking students, to two Congressional revisions, the most recent one last year.
He criticized the Congress for its tendency since the law was enacted to render its purposes "less clear" and its programs "more restrictive."
He quoted one of Title VII's original sponsors, Representative James H. Scheuer, Democrat of New York, as saying the act's "original purposes were perverted and politicized." It was intended originally to provide "pressure cooker" instruction in English, Representative Scheuer said on the House floor last year.
Mr. Bauer said the department's regulatory changes would have three aims: one would broaden the definition of transitional bilingual education, to give districts more leeway in the amount of native-language instruction they provide bilingual students; another would emphasize parental involvement in bilingual programs; the third would ensure that bilingual-education teachers are proficient in English.
The new rules will be published within 10 weeks. They are now being drafted, and officials would not disclose any details.
The department also will "explore with Congress the possibility of removing the 4 percent cap on alternative instructional methods, as well as other legislative changes," Mr. Bennett said.
Mr. Bennett added, "Our movement away from exclusive reliance on one method, and our endorsement of local flexibility, should not be mistaken for a return to the old days of sink or swim."