Trimming the Emperor’s New Clothes by Ron Unz
National Review Online, Tuesday, May 22, 2001
Given the landslide victories of ballot measures to dismantle bilingual education in California and Arizona, national media coverage of the dramatic rise in subsequent test scores, and the growing possibility of similar efforts in Colorado and New York City, it is hardly surprising that Congress would consider inserting bilingual-education reform into its omnibus package of federal education legislation.
Unfortunately, it is equally unsurprising that the resulting proposal of the IQ-challenged Republicans represents merely modifying the color and style – and increasing the fabric cost – of the Emperor’s New Clothes.
Having fully accepted the general theory that keeping Hispanic immigrant children in Spanish-only classes for years is the best and most effective means of teaching them English, the Republican-controlled Senate decided that the obvious failure of these existing programs was caused by lack of funding. Therefore, the Senate voted 2-to-1 to quadruple federal funding for bilingual education.
Since the limiting factor in the growth of bilingual programs throughout America has usually been the shortage of bilingual (i.e. Spanish-language) teachers, many of these additional federal billions will likely be spent on training and recruiting additional teachers, perhaps from Spain and Mexico. The obvious result will be more Spanish-language teachers, more Spanish-language classes, and fewer immigrant students being taught English.
On the House side, fiery 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 should schools fail to comply. Considering these Senate and House provisions together means that schools that 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 will clearly break the will of the stubborn bilingual lobby.
Tancredo himself has been a fierce critic of current immigration policy, and in prior years proposed eliminating all legal immigration from Mexico and elsewhere. Perhaps the millions of immigrant children who will remain in America’s publicly funded Spanish-only classes will take the appropriate hint, and deport themselves away, thereby solving immigration problems.
All humor aside, the proposed three- or four-year limit on bilingual education demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of local realities, as proven 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 seem to indicate that these students have 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 move often, and students seldom stay at a given school for more than three years. The lack of comprehensive national or statewide records thus allows bilingual advocates to quietly restart the “clock” every time a student enters their school. Since bilingual theorists claim that enrollment in their programs should go on for at least five to seven years – or perhaps even longer – many, many years of Spanish-only classes are the almost inevitable consequence of this deceptive three-year requirement.
In any event, younger children have a far easier time learning English than when they grow 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 great “mystery” of Hispanic educational underperformance and high drop-out rate. Maintaining this system is well in keeping with the Alice-in-Wonderland nature of so much Congressional legislation.
Although the conservative Republicans who control Washington seem unwilling to take a stand, they are not the only elected officials in America. For example, in liberal Massachusetts, a Democratic state senator has now introduced legislation that would follow California’s path in replacing bilingual education with intensive English immersion. The “English” issue seems to be reaching critical mass in the Bay State.
Perhaps at some point in the future, Washington’s right-wing Republicans will begin to notice the powerful “English” tide in liberal bastions such as Massachusetts and New York City, and discover the political courage to act accordingly.
Ron Unz is chairman of English for the Children, which led campaigns to dismantle bilingual education in California & Arizona.