The New York Times Finally Wakes Up on English

In 1974, a very well-intentioned but sadly misguided federal judge named Marvin E. Frankel ruled that Hispanic students in New York City schools should be taught their subjects in Spanish rather than in English. As a consequence, during the twenty-seven years since the establishment of this Aspira federal consent decree, New York’s public schools have produced many hundreds of thousands of Hispanic students with extremely poor English language skills, students who often leave school nearly illiterate in the language of this country.

Despite the obviously newsworthy nature of this bizarre educational policy, New York City’s system of mandatory Spanish-almost-only instruction remained virtually unnoticed for decades by the national newspaper of record headquartered in that very city. After the 1998 campaign for California’s Proposition 227 raised general awareness of bilingual education, the Times published merely an article or two over the next couple of years on the nearly 100,000 New York students not being taught English.

Only after the Times carried an August 2000 front- page lead story reporting that the academic test scores of over a million immigrant students in California appeared to be rapidly doubling following the dismantling of bilingual education there did local education reporters finally began taking notice of these same programs in their own back yard. Some of these reporters had not yet even been born when the programs began, and the same is probably true of many of the parents of the immigrant students whom they currently enroll.

During this past week, local Times reporters have commendably begun to make up for this twenty-seven year lapse. Long stories on New York City’s bilingual programs, filled with colorful photos, topped the Metro section two days out of the past seven. Additional articles on proposed decisions by the city’s Board of Education appeared other days, and on Wednesday, the Board’s “historic” seven to zero vote to declare victory and go home reached the front page of the newspaper.

Unfortunately, although the news pages of the Times are now fully wide awake, the editorial page is still deeply slumbering, or more precisely, dreaming. Tuesday’s vote provoked an immediate Times editorial, the second in two months, once again condemning the obvious failure of bilingual programs, and once again suggesting that the appropriate means of “fixing” these failed programs was to massively increase their budget. As usual, the Times editorial page continued its long tradition of demonstrating appalling ignorance of the simple factual details of the program upon which it was expounding.

But whereas the previous Times editorial has required me to respond with a letter of correction to the editor, this time the top of Friday’s op-ed page featured a long piece of mine on the subject. Progress is always heartening.

Between news, editorial, and opinion pages, I suspect that during the past seven days the Times carried more coverage of New York City’s huge bilingual programs than it had in any previous year, and perhaps more than in some full decades.

Taken as a whole, the New York Times is now fully awake on the subject of bilingual education. Let’s hope it doesn’t decide to doze off again.

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