English-Language Learners

Bush Plan Could Alter Bilingual Education

By Mary Ann Zehr — February 21, 2001 8 min read
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President Bush’s proposed education plan would get rid of a stipulation that the federal government give preference to bilingual education over English-only programs—a move that worries some bilingual education supporters and wins high praise from opponents of the instructional approach.

“We have these [federal] resources for bilingual education. Period,” said Rep. Ciro D. Rodriguez, D-Texas, who serves as the vice chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which backs bilingual education. “There’s been a deliberate attempt to get [the resources] away from bilingual education.”

Appearing at a press conference held by House Democrats in January, Mr. Rodriguez criticized the president’s plan to eliminate the bilingual education preference and other changes Mr. Bush has proposed in programs for limited-English-proficient students.

But Rep. Jeff Flake, R- Ariz., said it was appropriate to end the preference for transitional bilingual education, a method that has commonly been used in states with large concentrations of Hispanic immigrants. “The federal government pushes three out of four dollars to transitional bilingual education programs,” he said. “That’s a terrible thing because it pushes states away from what might work, such as English immersion.”

English immersion, in which students are taught overwhelmingly in English, has become a popular alternative to bilingual education as that method increasingly has come under attack. Voters in Arizona and California have opted to replace transitional bilingual education with English immersion.

Mr. Flake said that he realizes the federal government can’t “mandate” English immersion, but he contends that taking away a federal preference for bilingual education is a step in the right direction. “The reason you have these schools continue to use [bilingual education] programs is they get federal funds for doing so,” he said. “If you say, ‘You don’t have to do this to get the money,’ you wouldn’t have schools doing this.”

President Bush’s proposals on bilingual education are one aspect of the wide-ranging education plan he outlined soon after taking office last month. (“Democrats, GOP Agree in Principle on Federal Role,” Jan. 31, 2001.)

‘Priority’ Status

Whether in practice the federal government does favor transitional bilingual education, in which students are taught academic subjects in their native languages while learning English, is subject to debate.

Experts say that few school districts these days use either “transitional bilingual education” or “English immersion” in its pure form. Most use a mix of methodologies.

Schools receive federal money specifically for LEP students under Title VII, a $460 million program of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the flagship 1965 law in precollegiate education that Congress is expected to reauthorize this year. About $280 million of that aid goes to instructional programs or teacher professional development.

Schools also can pay for programs for LEP students under Title I, the $8.6 billion program for disadvantaged children that is the centerpiece of the ESEA. But the proposed changes for funding for LEP students laid out in Mr. Bush’s education plan, “No Child Left Behind,” refer directly only to Title VII, according to an education adviser for Mr. Bush who asked not to be named.

Currently, the Title VII law for instructional programs says that “priority” should be given to “applications which provide for the development of bilingual proficiency both in English and another language.” The law also states that no more than 25 percent of the federal funds can go to “special alternative instructional programs” other than bilingual education.

In other words, no more than 25 percent of the funds can be spent on programs “that have no native-language involvement whatsoever,” said Arthur M. Love, the acting director of the Department of Education’s office of bilingual education and minority-languages affairs, or OBEMLA, which administers Title VII.

Mr. Love said it was impossible to provide an exact financial breakdown of the distribution of federal dollars to transitional bilingual education vs. English-only instruction.

He said the grants for “bilingual education” include everything from English-immersion programs that may include a bit of instruction in students’ native languages to full- blown transitional bilingual education. In other words, he said, grants that meet the law’s stipulation that at least 75 percent of the federal aid go to bilingual education include a great deal of English instruction.

The Bush administration education adviser said that Mr. Bush’s recommendation to do away with the law’s stated preference for bilingual education is a key component of the president’s plans for LEP students.

Don Soifer, the executive vice president of the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va., that opposes bilingual education, agreed that “in abolishing that regulation, this makes this an unprecedented and very positive reform of federal bilingual education.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Flake, the Arizona Republican, introduced a bill in the House last week titled the English Language Acquisition Funding Fairness Act. The proposed legislation calls for “equal treatment for special alternative instructional programs” in the law. It is the only bill to be introduced so far picking up on Mr. Bush’s proposals for LEP students.

Legislators have not yet drafted a bill based on the full Bush education package.

Time Limits

Delia Pompa, the executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education and a former director of OBEMLA under President Clinton, said she was not concerned about whether Congress overturns the stated preference for bilingual education.What has her worried, instead, she said, is that Mr. Bush’s proposal would set a deadline by which LEP students would have to be taught in English.

Mr. Bush’s one-and-a- third page proposal on LEP students in the outline of his education plan mentions time limits in two places. It says that states and school districts “will be required to teach children in English after three consecutive years of being in school.”

It also states that “as part of their application for funds, states will set performance objectives to ensure LEP children achieve English fluency within three years.”

If Congress adopts President Bush’s plan, it would be the first time the federal government has imposed such time limits concerning the instruction of LEP students.

“We don’t believe you can put time limits on children and their development,” she said. “To place an arbitrary time limit on children by which they have to learn English is not supported by research.”

Ms. Pompa said she fears that Mr. Bush might seek to convert Title VII grants, which are now discretionary grants, to block grants. She argues that would dilute their impact.

The Bush education adviser said, however, that to date there were no plans to change the discretionary aspect of the grants.

Mr. Bush’s proposed changes for LEP students also say that states and school districts “will be held accountable for making annual increases in English proficiency from the previous year,” and that “states would also ensure that LEP students meet standards in core content areas that are at least as rigorous as those in classes taught in English.”

Observers speculated that those proposed changes refer to Mr. Bush’s overall plan to have states test all children in mathematics and reading every year in grades 3 to 8, and the Bush education adviser said that was indeed the intention.

While Ms. Pompa said her organization supports the inclusion of LEP students in state testing, it doesn’t support the use of testing for high-stakes decisions. Such decisions include promotion to the next grade or high school graduation.

Jorge E. Amselle, a spokesman for the Washington-based Center for Equal Opportunity, a research and advocacy group that opposes bilingual education, said that the issues of time limits on LEP programs and the testing of LEP students are controversial enough to stir “a major fight” in Congress.

Under Title I of the ESEA, states are required to include LEP students within their testing and accountability systems, but some states currently don’t test students annually.

Mr. Amselle said that Congress would likely agree on new legislation for LEP programs. But he predicted that the president’s proposed three-year time limit would become a three-year “goal” in final legislation, and that Mr. Bush’s proposals for testing LEP students might also be modified.

He also said he believes Congress will agree on providing more flexibility for what method is used to teach students English."You have a lot of people coming around on this issue who were in favor of bilingual education,” Mr. Amselle said. “They’re still in favor of it, but are also for more accountability. ... You’ll have sufficient agreement on those issues to pass legislation.”

By most accounts, Mr. Bush supports transitional bilingual education as an option for LEP students as well as other methods.

Texas Record

While he was governor of Texas from 1995 to 2000, Mr. Bush “supported programs that worked, whether bilingual or some other form—the programs that got kids literate in English,” said Jim Nelson, the Texas education commissioner, who was appointed to his post by Mr. Bush in 1999.

Although Texas law requires school districts to offer transitional bilingual education if they have at least 20 LEP students within the same grade who speak the same native language, Grace Shore, a Republican and the chairwoman of the Texas board of education, said Mr. Bush never tried to use his influence with the legislature to scrap the policy.

“There’s never been a movement to do away with bilingual education in Texas,” she said. “I think everyone is pretty well satisfied with it.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as Bush Plan Could Alter Bilingual Education


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