Trimming the Emperor’s New Clothes

With the landslide victories of “English” ballot measures in California and Arizona, national media coverage of the dramatic rise in subsequent test scores, and the growing possibility of similar moves in Colorado and New York City, it is hardly surprising that Washington Republicans would choose to incorporate bilingual education reform into their omnibus package of federal education legislation.

Unfortunately, it is equally unsurprising that the resulting proposal of the IQ-challenged Republicans represents merely changing the color and trim—and increasing the fabric expense—of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Having fully accepted the general theory that teaching Hispanic immigrant children for years in Spanish-only classes is the best and most effective means of having them learn English, the Republican- controlled Senate decided that the obvious failure of these existing programs was due to lack of funding, and therefore quite appropriately (and overwhelmingly) voted to QUADRUPLE national funding for bilingual education. Since the limiting factor in the growth of bilingual programs has usually been the lack of bilingual (i.e. Spanish-language) teachers, these additional billions to be spent on teacher training and recruitment (perhaps from Spain and Mexico) will surely increase the number of those programs, and therefore decrease the number of immigrant students taught English.

On the House side, fierce ultra-right-winger Tom Tancredo has courageously championed an amendment encouraging school districts to keep Hispanic children in Spanish-only classes for no longer than three or four years, with a loss of up to 20% of bilingual funds being threatened if schools fail to comply. Considering these Senate and House provisions together means that schools which keep Hispanic students in Spanish-only classes for four years or less will receive a 300% boost in funding, while those that keep Hispanic students in Spanish- only classes for (say) eight or ten years will receive merely a 220% increase in cash. Such a harsh blow should clearly frighten the fierce bilingual lobby.

Tancredo himself is a fierce critic of current immigration policy, and in prior years has proposed ending all legal immigration to America from Mexico and everywhere else; perhaps immigrant children taught only Spanish in school will take the appropriate hint, and deport themselves away, thereby solving that problem.

In all seriousness, the proposed three- or four- year limit shows a complete misunderstanding of local realities, as indicated by the many states where similar limits have already been tried and found unworkable. More than half of all limited- English students are American-born, and most of the remainder arrive as young children, meaning that the vast majority begin school in America at just five or six; yet most official statistics still classify these students as having been enrolled for less than three years as late as the fourth or fifth grade, a logical impossibility.

The reason is simple. Struggling immigrant families are highly mobile, and students seldom stay at a given school for more than three years, while the lack of available national or statewide records mean that bilingual advocates are quietly able to restart the “clock” every time a student enters their school. Since bilingual theorists claim that enrollment in their programs must be for at least five to seven years—or perhaps even longer—many years of Spanish-only classes are the almost inevitable consequence of that deceptive three-year requirement.

In any event, younger children have a far easier time learning English than older, and a proposed system in which they are taught only Spanish during their early years in school, then transferred to English classes once they can no longer easily learn that language helps to explain the “mystery” of Hispanic educational underperformance and is well in keeping with the Alice-in-Wonderland nature of much Congressional legislation.

On a far more encouraging note, a Democratic State Senator in liberal Massachusetts has introduced legislation aimed at following California’s lead in replacing bilingual education with English immersion. The “English” issue seems to be reaching critical mass in that state.

Perhaps at some point in the future, Washington’s rightwing Republicans will begin to notice the tide in liberal bastions such as Massachusetts and New York City, and act accordingly.

P.S. My previous Note on the alleged war times of former Sen. Bob Kerrey provoked an enormous volume of response, mostly very favorable but some very hostile, and with no clear pattern along ideological lines. Most of the Left respondents were in complete agreement, but a few (notably including Paul Starr, editor of the liberal American Prospect) were so angry with my piece that they asked to be permanently removed from my distribution list.

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