'Official English' Bills Could Kill Bilingual Education, NABE Says

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With proposals to declare English the official language of government gaining support in Congress, the National Association for Bilingual Education last week released a report contending that such laws would effectively end bilingual-education programs.

About half a dozen so-called official-English proposals are pending, some of which expressly seek to repeal federally financed bilingual education. But the bills that have garnered the most support, HR 123 and its counterpart, S 356, do not. Aides to the bills' sponsors, Rep. Bill Emerson, R-Mo., and Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said that they do not intend to wipe out bilingual education.

But the Washington-based NABE, which released the report at its annual conference in Orlando, Fla., says that provisions in many of the bills are broad enough to be interpreted as outlawing bilingual education and would "open a veritable Pandora's box of litigation."

Both HR 123 and S 356 call for the federal government to conduct its "official business" in English, with a few noted exceptions. The bills define official business as "those governmental actions, documents, or policies which are enforceable with the full weight and authority of the government."

Other provisions would obligate federal officials to "preserve and enhance the role of English as the official language" of the U.S. government. "Such obligation shall include encouraging greater opportunities for individuals to learn the English language," the proposals state.

If bilingual-education programs were eliminated, the NABE report stresses, children who speak a language other than English would not be the only students affected. So-called two-way bilingual-education programs--though relatively rare--serve English-speaking students too.

Matter of Interpretation

At least some of NABE's conclusions are supported by a 1995 Congressional Research Service report analyzing various official-English bills. The CRS said that if such a proposal were enacted, it would likely be challenged in the courts. And the impact of a bill that did not expressly outlaw federally funded bilingual programs or existing initiatives that permit or require the use of languages other than English would be "open to question," the CRS report said.

But Daphne Magnuson, a spokeswoman for U.S. English, a Washington-based advocacy group that lobbies for official-English measures, said that NABE's interpretation is incorrect.

"The whole point of these bills is to leave intact certain federal programs, including bilingual education. I think they [NABE] are just trying to raise points that aren't truly valid to scare people away," Ms. Magnuson asserted.

Many official-English bills have died in Congress in the past. Both the House and Senate have held hearings on the official-English bills in the current session, but none of the proposals has been scheduled for legislative action.

But many observers said that with GOP leaders such as House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas touting official English in recent months, the outcome could be different this year. Those two Republican leaders have not signed on to a particular proposal, but Mr. Emerson's bill has 193 co-sponsors, just 25 shy of a majority in the House.

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