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Bilingual Education Attacked

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Dec 8, 2010

Even though bilingual education has provided a positive and supportive environment for the academic and social growth of many language-minority students, politically motivated opposition to bilingual education has prevailed in most states. Conservative forces mobilized throughout the nation in the 1980s and 1990s to attack taxes, schools, and bilingual education. Since the 1990s, these same groups have frequently attacked multicultural education as divisive to national unity. Some English speakers are offended that immigrant children are taught in their native tongue for part of the day. Political leaders argue that bilingualism handicaps children.

For example, Porter (1998) argues, “Bilingual education is a classic example of an experiment that was begun with the best of humanitarian intentions, but has turned out to be terribly wrongheaded... . The accumulated research of the past thirty years reveals almost no justification for teaching children in their native languages to help them learn either English or other subjects (pp. 28–29).

As in the debates on affirmative action, conservatives have created the deception that minorities are gaining an advantage, that bilingual education is discrimination against European Americans (Guinier, 2002; Krashen, 2002b). The attacks on bilingualism continue, with voters in several states voting for anti–bilingual education measures.

After a volatile political campaign, California’s electorate (then 69 percent European) responded to crises in the state’s educational system by adopting Proposition 227, the so-called English for the Children initiative, drafted by English only advocate Ron Unz. Latinos made up 29.4 percent of the state’s population and more than 36 percent of its school-age children but only 12 percent of its voters.

The resulting new law dramatically altered the way in which English is taught in California schools. Proposition 227 effectively abolished bilingual education for immigrant children (whose parents are often not citizens and cannot vote) by making the use of other languages for instruction illegal except under special circumstances. It mandated intensive 10-month “sheltered English immersion” programs as the instructional strategy, except in very limited circumstances where a waiver of the bilingual education ban might be granted. As a result, in 2000 less than 10 percent of the English language learners in California were receiving bilingual education (Gandara et al., 2004). Since 1998, similar initiatives have passed in Arizona and Massachusetts but have been defeated in Colorado.

The public debate on bilingual education often deals with a false dichotomy, that of choosing either English or the home language. All immigrant parents want their children to learn English. Both languages are valuable. Bilingual advocates argue that the nation gains from the language resources of its immigrant communities, while antibilingual advocates stress the need for national cohesion through one language.

In January 2002, Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as the Bilingual Education Act, was allowed to expire. It was eliminated as a part larger “school reform” effort President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act (Public Law 107–110) that abolishes most efforts at bilingual education and substitutes increased funding for English language acquisition efforts. The 34-year federal effort to investigate and experiment with bilingual education at the federal level has ended. Anti–bilingual education forces have won. Even the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs has been renamed the Office of English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement for Limited English Proficient Students. English learning has always been the primary function of this office, but now even the limited efforts to learn in a home language are discouraged and not funded (Crawford, 2002).

As anti-immigrant activism continues to grow, including attempting to influence the 2008 presidential campaign, antibilingual efforts have also increased, with California and Arizona, among other states, preventing even limited use of native language materials to assist children while they are learning English.

The several court decisions requiring special services for language-minority students so they can learn English and gain access to the core curriculum (Lau, Castañeda, and Keyes) remain in effect. In spite of the conservative political mobilization against bilingualism, the rapidly growing language-minority populations require schools to respond to the language needs of their children.

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