On Capitol Hill, Congress Takes Up Bilingual Ed. Debate

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California's heated debate over bilingual education echoed in the halls of Congress last week.

Sen. Pete V. domenici

Even as House Republicans started work on a bill that would mandate a major overhaul of federal bilingual education programs to emphasize English-language instruction, six GOP senators planned to introduce a resolution calling for Americans to learn more than one language and for immigrants to retain their native tongues.

The debate in Washington will likely come to a head after California voters decide on June 2 whether to replace nearly all bilingual education in the state with "sheltered English immersion" instruction. ("Calif. Battle Goes Beyond Bilingual Ed.," in This Week's News.)

Rep. Frank Riggs

A victory for the anti-bilingual-education ballot measure could give the House bill the momentum it needs to get through the legislative process before Congress adjourns in the fall, said Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif., the sponsor of the proposed English Language Fluency Act and the chairman of the Early Childhood, Youth, and Families Subcommittee of the House education committee.

Last Thursday, the panel approved Mr. Riggs' bill in a 10-5 vote that was divided along party lines.

"This is one of the highest educational priorities for our party," Mr. Riggs said in an interview after the vote.

But Republicans in the Senate may disagree. The day after the House subcommittee action, Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico and five other GOP members planned to introduce a nonbinding resolution that would declare English the country's "common language," but also encourage Americans to "learn and maintain other languages."

Significant Implications

The Senate resolution, although symbolic, recognizes political reality, bilingual education advocates say. Republicans have alienated Hispanic voters with their stances on immigration and language, and they're searching for ways to court what is becoming a substantial voting block, said James J. Lyons, the executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education.

The proposed resolution "sends a very clear signal that not all Republicans are for this English-only [House] bill," Mr. Lyons said in an interview.

Mr. Riggs disputed the claim that his bill would set a policy of English only. In an interview, he called it a "very reasonable and even moderate proposal."

It would entail an overhaul of the $160 million federal bilingual education program, which supports instruction programs for limited-English-proficient students. It also would emphasize English-language immersion and give parents the chance to pull their children out of "transitional" bilingual programs, which rely in large part on teaching in a student's native language.

The bill, H.R. 3892, also would prohibit students from receiving native-language instruction for more than three years under the federal program. Current federal law sets no time limit.

"Many children spend as many as six or seven years in classes using their native-language instruction, but still are not fluent in English," Mr. Riggs said during debate on the bill.

Democrats rejected his argument. The bill would mean an "educational straitjacket for teachers, parents, and children," said Rep. Matthew G. Martinez of California, the subcommittee's senior Democrat.

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said in a statement that H.R. 3892 would "seriously undermine efforts to teach English to limited-English proficient students."

Vol. 17, Issue 37, Page 20

Published in Print: May 27, 1998, as On Capitol Hill, Congress Takes Up Bilingual Ed. Debate
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