English-Language Learners

Public Hostility, Budget Cuts Confront Bilingual Education

By George Neill — January 26, 1982 9 min read
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As 1982 begins, bilingual education in the United States faces staggering problems, according to experts who gathered here last week to discuss “Bilingual Education in Academic Growth, Economic Development, and World Trade” at the four-day annual conference of the California Association for Bilingual Education (cabe).

Public Hostility

Some 4,000 bilingual-education specialists from California, Texas, New York, Massachusetts, Arizona, New Mexico, and other states listened as speaker after speaker cited such problems as sharp budget cuts, a boom in demand for programs to serve a rising tide of foreign-language-speaking children, the need for more and better-prepared teachers, and growing hostility to bilingual education among members of the public.

Few solutions were offered. Several speakers, however, urged the California association to form coalitions with friendly forces within the state and across the country to fight “our enemies” in Congress and the state legislatures and to publicize the successes achieved by bilingual programs.

The message from Washington regarding bilingual education nationwide was not encouraging. “We are going to have less for a long, long time,” Jesse Soriano, director of the federal Department of Education’s Office of Bilingual and Minority Language Affairs, told the participants at a packed general session. Mr. Soriano, who has been in his job for only a couple of months, said, “All of us are going to have to become more resourceful and inventive. We must develop new networks of support for bilingual education, particularly in the neglected area of private enterprise, and we must improve our dissemination and public-relations efforts.

“Sometimes,” he added, “abundance of resources dulls creativity. We can’t throw up our hands and say we can’t do it.

“I am totally committed to foreign-language education and bilingual education,” he said, promising that his office would work closely with state departments of education. “I want to sit down with them to figure out how we can do things better.”

‘Believer and Supporter’

Representative Paul Simon, Democrat of Illinois, told the discouraged educators that they had at least one friend in a key spot in the Reagan Administration. “Mr. Soriano’s boss, Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell,” he disclosed, “is a true believer and supporter of our cause. If it hadn’t been for Ted Bell, there might not have been a dime in the budget for bilingual education.”

Given the current mood in Congress, bilingual education “would be dead,” said Mr. Simon, if it came up for a vote of confidence. (Senator Walter D. Huddleston, Democrat of Kentucky, introduced a bill last month that would limit the scope of bilingual-education programs and limit participation of foreign-speaking students in such programs to one year.)

Guillermo Lopez, chief of the California Department of Education’s Office of Bilingual-Bicultural Education, said, however, that federal budget cuts could cripple his office’s efforts to serve the state’s schools.

In fiscal year 1981, Mr. Lopez said, the federal government appropriated $179 million for bilingual education for all 50 states; the budget was reduced to $139 million in 1982. And the President is expected to recommend only $95 million in his proposed budget for 1983.

Reductions in funding, Mr. Lopez said, are coming just as the demand for bilingual services is growing at an amazing rate. He said that figures for southern California school districts offer educators a preview of things to come. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, Hispanics became a majority in kindergarten and first-grade classes last year. Similar trends are evident elsewhere. “It is the first sign of the tide to come,” he asserted.

Mr. Lopez noted that the figures in the lower grades are in sharp contrast to high-school enrollments. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, “Anglos” represent only 12 percent of the students in kindergarten this year, compared to 65 percent in the 12th grade, he pointed out. “We find the same thing in other metropolitan cities in California, only the contrast is not quite so sharp.

“Imagine,” he continued, “what these schools will be like in 11 years when the Hispanic bulge has worked its way to the senior class.”

“Since we don’t have enough bilingual teachers now,” he added, “it doesn’t take much imagination to see the serious problem that lies ahead.... The kids are here, and we’re going to have to deal with their unique needs. This should mean big changes in the schools.”

Mr. Lopez said the schools probably will not change as much as they should because little advance planning has taken place. With current tenure laws, he noted, “it will be difficult to drop high-seniority teachers who speak only English.”

Trained for Another Era

Meeting the flood of language-minority children coming into California schools--and in schools throughout the Southwest--are teaching staffs trained for another era, according to Ramiro Reyes, associate state superintendent of public instruction in the California Department of Education. Because of that generation gap, he said, there is also an increasing disparity in racial background between the professionals and the new students coming into California schools:

Of all school principals in the state, 87 percent are white and 13 percent are minority members.

84 percent of the teachers are white; 16 percent are minority members.

Among paraprofessionals, 66 percent are white and 34 percent are minority members.

“Since most of the administrators and teachers now on hand will not leave during the next 10 years,” Mr. Lopez explained, “they must be retrained to meet the needs of language-minority children. That means we face the biggest in-service education challenge in the history of the state.”

He pointed out that California currently has 4,263 certified bilingual teachers and another 4,861 teachers in bilingual programs who have received state waivers because they do not meet bilingual certification standards.

Mr. Reyes cited additional statistics to show the dramatic demographic changes that have taken place in recent years:

The U.S. birthrate has declined by 30 percent over the past 21 years. However, while overall school enrollment declined, the nation’s minority population--particularly the school-age population--expanded dramatically.

California’s population increased from 20 million to 23.7 million between 1970 and 1980, and the entire increase was among minority groups. Put another way, the combined minority population in California increased by 6.1 million, while the Anglo population decreased by 2.4 million.

Minorities now make up 48 percent of the state’s total school enrollment, Mr. Reyes said, compared with 25 percent in 1967. Between 1967 and 1979, the number of Hispanics enrolled increased by 51 percent. And the enrollment of students whose proficiency in English is limited climbed from 233,444 in 1977 to 390,000 last year.

The number of language minorities is increasing not only because of a high birthrate, other speakers pointed out, but because large numbers of illegal immigrants are entering the country from Mexico, and more and more refugees from Indochina and elsewhere are reaching American shores.

As the need for bilingual programs grows, so does the opposition to bilingual education, suggested some educators attending the conference.

“There’s a lot of fear in the majority community,” Mr. Lopez said, “that if you do anything in a language other than English, it’s un-American.”

“I think if the average American citizen knew what we are doing, he would applaud our efforts and give us the support we need,” Olivia Martinez, the California bilingual group’s president, said in an interview. “Instead, because of a serious lack of understanding about bilingual education, we have a lot of people saying, ‘What’s the matter with you people? This is America, speak English.’ They don’t know that is exactly what we’re trying to do.”

Ms. Martinez announced that cabe plans to launch a public-relations campaign to counter “the current negative tide that’s running against us.” She said it would consist of short radio and television commercials that depict success stories and that attempt to clarify common misunderstandings about bilingual education.

The most important issue facing bilingual education in California this year, Ms. Martinez said, will come up in the next few months when the California Board of Education decides when students in a bilingual program should be moved to the regular English-only classroom.

Ms. Martinez and her organization want the board to set a formal standard for moving California’s 390,000 limited-English-proficient students to an all-English program. Students who rank above the 36th percentile on English achievement tests should be moved into all-English programs, she suggested.

Research findings now indicate “quite clearly,” she said, “that the crossover point between English-language proficiency and academic achievement takes place at the 36th to 40th percentile.”

Mr. Lopez of the California Department of Education supported this contention. “We have found,” he said, “that unless a student achieves at that percentile in reading, there’s no chance that he will be able to keep up in the regular English program.” He said the issue is of major concern in Texas also.

Ms. Martinez said students in bilingual programs in her district of San Jose “have no difficulty scoring at the 36th percentile. In fact we have 80 percent of them scoring well above the 40th percentile.”

(The question of a student’s point of exit from bilingual education has caused a bitter split in the California state board. At one point, those who opposed setting the standards sought by cabe were charged with racism by one member of the board.)

“Public policy in the country at this time,” Ms. Martinez said, “is to get language-minority children out of bilingual education as quickly as possible and drop the native language entirely. That’s very easy to say,” she added, “but it’s difficult for a teacher who knows how a child responds and learns in a particular setting to do anything but what she believes is best for him.

“Teachers who are better prepared and know the methodology,” she added, “will continue to use the native language of the child as they think appropriate. On the other hand, teachers who are uncomfortable in the child’s native language are going to move much more quickly to English without as much time and care.”

Since the underlying goal of bilingual education is to bring limited-English-proficient students as quickly as possible to the point where they can compete successfully with their English-proficient peers, Ms. Martinez said, “the greatest care must be taken to ensure that in our haste to bring about the desired result, educators do not resort to a speed-up process. Moving too fast guarantees the student’s ultimate failure in the new language and culture.”

Other speakers--including Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., United Farm Workers’ vice-president Dolores Huerta, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Wilson C. Riles--told the educators not to abandon their efforts, while some who spoke before the group urged taking political action.

“Learning English doesn’t mean you have to forget Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, or any other language,” Governor Brown said. “We won’t have a strong economy unless we have people...who can speak and understand the languages and cultures of other countries.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 1982 edition of Education Week as Public Hostility, Budget Cuts Confront Bilingual Education


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