Administration, Congress Weigh In on Bilingual Education

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The Clinton administration took the unusual step of weighing in on state policy last week, leveling criticism at the ballot initiative in California that would virtually eliminate bilingual programs in the Golden State. President Clinton and Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said they felt compelled to speak out against the initiative.

Proposition 227, which goes before California voters June 2, would require most students with limited English skills to have intensive English instruction for no more than a year before moving into regular classrooms where only English is spoken. Under the proposal, parents must apply for a waiver to keep their children in an alternative program. ("Prop. 227 Could Torpedo 'Two Way' Language Programs," in This Week's News.

"Proposition 227 is not the way to go," Secretary Riley said in a written statement released last week. "This one-year time limit and one-size-fits-all approach to learning flies in the face of years of research that tells us that children learn in different ways and at different speeds."

With its stance, the administration joined opponents who argue that the initiative will mean failure for many immigrant students with limited English proficiency.

The latest statewide polls suggest that about the half of the Hispanic voters in California support the measure. California Gov. Pete Wilson, who has not decided whether to endorse the initiative, criticized the president last week for meddling in state affairs.

"I frankly think he has no business substituting his judgment for the people of California," Mr. Wilson, a Republican, said.

Debate on Capitol Hill

While the campaign over the "English for the Children" initiative continued on the West Coast, the debate was being echoed on Capitol Hill.

Last Thursday, the House Subcommittee on Children, Youth, and Families held a hearing to consider legislation that would overhaul the Department of Education's office of bilingual education and minority-languages affairs.

Rep. Frank D. Riggs, R-Calif., the chairman of the subcommittee, introduced a bill last month that would transfer control of federal bilingual education programs from the Education Department to the states through block grants and allow states the flexibility to decide what forms of instruction to use to help children learn English. Like Proposition 227, HR 3680 would require parental permission before a non-English-speaking child could be placed in a class taught in the child's native language.

Another bill sponsored by Rep. Tom Delay, R-Texas, HR 3720, would go even further by abolishing the federal office of bilingual education.

At last week's hearing, Mr. Riggs contended that current bilingual education programs do not offer the most effective means of imparting language skills to children, and that schools' emphasis should be to "mainstream [students] into regular classrooms as soon as possible."

At the hearing, he listened as witnesses identified programs that they said failed to teach students with limited English skills quickly enough. Mr. Riggs argued that keeping LEP students out of classes taught in English impedes their progress.

Only one of the nine witnesses supported bilingual education programs.

To say the primary purpose of bilingual education is to teach students to speak English is wrong, said Anthony J. Trujillo, the superintendent of the Yselta Independent School District in El Paso, Texas, whose 47,000-student district is 86 percent Hispanic. At his district, 78 percent of the Hispanic students passed their English-proficiency exam within three years, he said.

"The primary purpose of bilingual education is to develop students' total academic preparation while they are in transition in learning to use English," Mr. Trujillo said.

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