National Baby-Steps on English

The simplest means of judging whether a proposed change in a long-standing and controversial policy is significant or insignificant is to examine the breadth of its support. If political support is overwhelming, rather than contentiously divided, one may be sure that the change, however well packaged in PR, is merely cosmetic rather than real. It is close to a syllogism that real changes in controversial policies will invariably provoke controversy.

Thus, the numerous welfare reform bills passed by Congress for decades prior to 1996 often achieved overwhelming bipartisan support, and did little if anything, while the 1996 bill provoked a ferocious revolt by Bill Clinton’s liberal Democratic base and has achieved greater and faster results than ever expected.

Keeping this simple rule in mind, we should note that although the “English” initiatives in California and Arizona gained overwhelming popular support across the spectrum, they provoked enormous and vehement opposition from the educational elites. For good or for ill, they clearly “did something.”

By contrast, during this last Spring, the New York City Board of Education voted *unanimously* to enact supposed reforms in one of America’s largest and most fiercely defended native language instruction programs. The unanimity alone provides us with a powerful and accurate clue about what had actually occurred, namely that both supporters and opponents of bilingual education had agreed to a face-saving compromise: they would together vote to do nothing but pretend that they had done something. Sure enough, a few months later, after the television cameras and newspaper reporters had moved on to other issues, Schools Chancellor Harold Levy and then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani each shouted “betrayal,” and blamed the other for the obvious fact that almost nothing had changed.

It is in this light that we should note the overwhelming amount of bipartisan support behind President Bush’s Educational Reform Act, widely touted in the media as the centerpiece of his domestic policy agenda and the most sweeping such change in federal educational policy proposed in decades. Leaving aside all other aspects, the bill’s impact on bilingual education appears far more likely to mimic that of the bipartisan welfare reform act of 1988 (following which the welfare rolls continued their seemingly unstoppable upward march) than that of the welfare reform act of 1996 (which quickly halved those rolls).

It is hardly mere coincidence that the sharpest commentary on these proposed bilingual education reforms has emerged from Ruben Navarrette, Jr., the most prominent Hispanic journalist in the largest newspaper in President Bush’s home state of Texas, the largest remaining center of these programs. His description of the changes as “baby steps” at best is apt indeed, and perhaps even slightly charitable at that.

For example, Jim Boulet, another sharp-eyed observer, has noted a curiously striking element to the legislation, buried deep on page 434 of the massive 1184 page volume. The supposed reforms to bilingual education, including the stunning requirement that “bilingual” teachers actually be fluent in English, are entirely conditional on appropriations for the program totaling at least $650 million per year, a level more than double that established in recent fiscal years. Thus, only if Congress massively increases the budget for bilingual programs will there be a requirement that among other things all teachers in those programs know—though not necessarily teach—English.

I do wonder how many journalists—let alone voting members of Congress—will ever attempt to read all 1184 pages of this enormous bill.

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