English-Language Learners

Proposed Federal Policies Threaten Bilingual Programs, Educators Say

By Glen Macnow — April 14, 1982 5 min read
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Proposed changes in federal policies involving bilingual education threaten to “destroy a crucial and effective program,” according to those who teach non-English-speaking students using their native languages.

Meeting in Detroit last week, 2,000 members of the National Association for Bilingual Education (nabe) assailed the Reagan Administration for recent budget cuts in bilingual programs, as well as for policy shifts now being considered by Education Department officials that would downplay the role of native-language teaching in favor of other methods that emphasize teaching in English.

“The President appears intent on undoing all progress made in this area in the past decade,” said Ramone Santiago, nabe president. “He wants to destroy a crucial and effective program and go back to the old days of sink or swim for children who have not yet learned English.”

Mr. Santiago and other bilingual educators said they were particularly disturbed by the policy shifts now under consider-ation that would reduce from 3.6 million to 1 million the number of children in federally sponsored bilingual programs and would give local school districts the option of using the “immersion method” to teach foreign-speaking students.

Under the immersion method, students who are not proficient in English are placed in classes with children whose native language is English. The non-English-speaking students receive no special help or instruction.

That method has long been criticized by bilingual educators, who say it contributes to a higher dropout rate.

“Simple logic will tell you that teaching any subject in a language the student does not understand can only be frustrating,” said Roberto Cruz, president of the National Hispanic University in Oakland, Calif., and president-elect of nabe. “Our studies have found that using this method only places further academic distance between those who speak English and those who don’t. Those who don’t speak English decide they can’t compete in school, and they give up.”

"[The bilingual] method has been accepted since the Nixon Administration and has been proven successful,” said Mr. Cruz, who is also a member of the National Advisory Council on Bilingual Education. He pointed out that the national dropout rate for Hispanic students was 52 percent in 1968 when Congress first enacted Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the bilingual-education law.

‘Negative Turnaround’

Today, the Hispanic dropout rate is 42 percent and shrinking, Mr. Cruz said. “If the Administration’s policies are adopted, I’m afraid we’ll see another negative turnaround.”

Mr. Cruz referred to a study of a suburban Washington, D.C., district’s immersion program, which he said found that the system’s non-English-speaking students were best able to learn when all their subjects were taught in English. But he termed the finding “garbage,” arguing that the students in that system are, for the most part, children of foreign diplomats who would have learned English anyway.

“You can’t compare them with children from the barrios of San Antonio or the ghettos of the south Bronx,” he said.

The educators meeting in Detroit also had sharp criticism for the Administration’s plans to exclude from federal programs children who speak some English, a proposal that some estimate would reduce by more than 70 percent the number of children eligible for such programs.

“With the stroke of a pen, the President hopes to make the problem go away,” said Mr. Santiago. “But he should be increasing the number of students in the programs. As of now, we are serving fewer than half the children who need such help.”

In the past two years, federal funding for bilingual-education programs has dropped from $179 million to $139 million. The President’s fiscal 1983 budget recommends a further cut to $95 million.

Those cuts are coming at a time when bilingual educators say needs are greater than ever. Local school districts around the nation must now provide programs in 87 different languages, said Mr. Santiago. In larger urban districts such as Los Angeles and Miami, more than half the students entering kindergarten are from Hispanic backgrounds.

Many state and local government officials say they have been unable to absorb the cuts in federal aid for bilingual education.

In Michigan, for example, federal support for the programs dropped from $4.5 million to $3 million this year. The financially troubled state has been unable to make up the difference. As a result, a fledgling bilingual-education program for Detroit’s growing Arabic community has been slashed.

“The cuts are having the biggest effect on the poor urban districts that can least afford them,” said Phillip Runkel, Michigan’s school superintendent. “The districts barely have enough money to field an academic program. They certainly don’t have the money to pay for large special-education programs like bilingual education.”

Adding to the problems of bilingual education is a growing teacher shortage. In California, said Mr. Cruz, there are only 7,000 qualified bilingual-education teachers where 15,000 are needed. In south Florida, the rapidly growing Haitian community has school officials frantically searching for instructors who speak Creole.

“The problem is compounded by a lack of certification standards for teachers in bilingual education” said Mr. Santiago, who is the director of one of the nation’s largest bilingual-teacher-training institutes, at Georgetown University in Washington. “Many people are loath to pursue their careers in this field because of that.”

To battle federal cuts and to entice more people into the profession, the nabe is planning to embark on a major public-relations campaign in 1982. In California, educators are sponsoring television and radio commercials showing success stories in bilingual education. If that effort proves successful, Mr. Cruz said, it will be tried on a national level.

“We have a program that works, but we’ve done a bad job of selling it,” Mr. Cruz said, “the general public thinks bilingual education is just another federal program spending money to create a separate society. But we are teaching students to speak English and we are creating better American citizens.”


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