Right Problem, Wrong Solution for NYC Schools

With the last of America’s many millions of mediagenic chad having now been eaten by the dustbin of history, the front page of today’s New York Times had space for a story on proposed changes in New York City’s bilingual education programs. This article caps a series of several other recent stories and opinion pieces on the subject in the New York press.

It appears that the manifest failure of bilingual education has prompted New York Schools Chancellor Harold Levy to propose the establishment of an English immersion alternative to these Spanish- almost-only programs for immigrant students.

However, while Mr. Levy’s diagnosis of the problem seems reasonable—bilingual education has indeed never actually worked either in New York or anywhere else in the country—his proposed solution, the establishment of an intensive English program as an option, seems quite unlikely to have much real impact.

The reason for such probable failure is simple. In most areas of the country, including both California and Arizona prior to passage of the recent initiatives, bilingual education for immigrant students has long been voluntary in theory, but virtually mandatory in practice due to the organized ideological fanaticism of bilingual teachers and their fellow advocates. If immigrant parents, many of whom speak little English and are easily intimidated by figures of authority, are given a free “choice” between bilingual ed and English, school-level pressure from bilingual teachers and administrators will ensure that nearly all choose the former, and very little if anything will change. Only setting English immersion as the default option partially compensates for this organizational skew.

Seen another way, Mr. Levy appears to be working to have New York City shift its immigrant education policy somewhat in the direction of California’s— but California’s policy PRIOR to the passage of Prop. 227. Such a goal seems hardly worth the expenditure of much time or political capital.

When faced with entrenched opposition on an issue, many political leaders adopt the common strategy of making some noise, effecting a few cosmetic changes, then declaring victory and going home, knowing full well that the lazy media and the fickle public will probably have forgotten all about the matter long before the purely cosmetic nature of the changes is revealed. It would be unfortunate if the current “fix” for bilingual education programs in New York City fall into this category.

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