In Questioning Bilingual Ed., Hispanic Parents Join Backlash

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The debate over bilingual education is not just an inside-the-Beltway battle of ideologues. In pockets across the country, Hispanic parents who historically have been bilingual education's strongest supporters are openly questioning it.

This month, Hispanic parents in Los Angeles pulled roughly 100 children out of a local school to protest bilingual education. And the California state school board this month approved an Orange County district's plan to teach its limited-English-proficient students mostly in English under a revised state policy that gives schools more flexibility to stop teaching students in their native languages.

Parent disgruntlement over bilingual education also has surfaced in places such as Omaha, Neb., and Princeton, N.J.

But most of the nation's estimated 3 million LEP students aren't in bilingual education, where part of their day is spent learning in their native languages, according to James J. Lyons, the executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education in Washington. Even when they are, what is called "bilingual education" varies drastically from school to school and class to class.

Education officials from states with many LEP students, such as Arizona, Florida, and Illinois, said they have not seen an exodus from bilingual programs on the part of districts or parents. Texas officials report a slight increase in their opt-out rates, and Illinois officials say there are areas where half of a district's LEP population may have opted out. But overall, the numbers have been stable.

More Than Pedagogy

But parents such as Fredesvinda Angel, whose children attend the Ninth Street School in Los Angeles, say they want English only. Parents late last week ended a boycott of the 439-student elementary school, a protest held to press officials to make program changes, which Principal Eleanor Vargas-Page recently said she was willing to do.

The 328 children in bilingual classes at the school receive instruction in Spanish in language arts and social studies only, Ms. Vargas-Page said.

Ms. Angel came to California from Mexico in 1987 and works at a garment factory. Her daughter spent nursery school in English but is in the bilingual-education program in kindergarten.

"I don't want to wait so long for her to be in all-English classes," Ms. Angel, who speaks little English, said in a recent interview in Spanish. "I want her to be a professional when she grows up, to have more than us."

In Omaha, some Hispanic parents voted with their feet--they walked away from frustration with the bilingual-education system in California and have welcomed the English-based programs in the heartland, Omaha school officials say.

In Princeton, parents became so frustrated with the state rules on bilingual education--which made it nearly impossible for parents to opt out of the program--that state lawmakers recently changed them.

Despite bilingual education's critics, who often capture headlines, there are still many parents--Hispanics in Denver, Laotians in Saginaw, Texas--who are fighting for it.

Rub‚n G. Rumbaut, a sociologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing, noted that if it were only a question of pedagogy, the issue might not ignite such passions. But bilingual education always has been more than that--cloaked in questions of culture, assimilation, and self-identity.

"Language is a conduit of culture," Mr. Rumbaut said. "Bilingual-education programs run the spectrum from excellent to truly lousy ones that become a political, bureaucratic trap for immigrant children. ... Parents don't want to be part of an 'experiment' where maybe their kids will come out having learned English in six years."

Vol. 15, Issue 23

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