ST. LOUIS — An immigrant from El Salvador, Miguel Alvarado wants his four children to learn English and fulfill the American dream. So far, the biggest obstacle has been the local public school.
Although the Alvarado family speaks English at home, the children were placed in bilingual classrooms where nearly all instruction is in Spanish. "I want my kids to concentrate on learning to read and write in English," protests Mr. Alvarado.
His voice is being added to a growing chorus of complaints from immigrant parents. Although criticism of bilingual education dates back to its early days in the late 1960s, the latest bilingual backlash is coming from those it is designed to serve.
As the number of "limited English proficient" students in American schools soars to nearly 3 million, the debate about how best to educate them is reaching new heights.
In February, parents of 100 students kept their children home from the Ninth Street Elementary School in Los Angeles to protest its bilingual program, where children are taught reading, writing, and arithmetic in Spanish in their first years and then eased into English. "At no place in the day are they learning to read and write in English," says parent Alice Callaghan.
In Brooklyn, N.Y., a group of 150 parents sued the state education commissioner last year, charging that their children are being held in bilingual classes too long and failing to learn English even after seven years. The case was dismissed by the state Supreme Court but is being appealed.
Nearly 30 years after federal bilingual programs were established, this grass-roots revolt is prompting a reassessment. Several states are rewriting laws to limit the number of years a student may spend in bilingual classes. Some school districts are switching to English-only instruction. And Congress decreased federal funding for bilingual education from $240 million to $178 million for 1996.
"We sent an important signal that Congress will no longer issue blank checks to education programs with such dubious records of success," says Rep. Toby Roth (R) of Wisconsin, sponsor of a bill to repeal bilingual programs.
"The high school dropout rate for Hispanic students, one of the telling indicators bilingual education was supposed to change, has not budged since the program began," Mr. Roth says. Students are spending up to seven years in these programs without learning to read or write in English, he adds.
Defenders of bilingual education admit that some students fail to master English as quickly as expected. "But schools are also failing to graduate native English speakers who are able to read," says James Lyons, executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education in Washington. "That is not the fault of bilingual education. We just have poor schools in many communities."
Critics of these programs are falling into a "speed trap," Mr. Lyons says. "There is an undue preoccupation on how long children are enrolled in any program. The question ought to be how well they are doing as much as how fast they are learning English."
SPECIAL classes for non-English-speaking students began as a way to help students keep up with academic content until they are ready to learn in English. "There was initially a real hope that teaching children in their native language would allow them to keep up in school," says Linda Chavez, head of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Washington. "But in many places it's become nothing more than native-language instruction."
Learning English needs to be the priority, she argues. "If a student is learning calculus in Spanish, that child may end up with terrific mathematics skills but when he or she goes out to get a job in the United States, being fluent in mathematics and Spanish is not going to help very much."
As complaints mount, some school districts are replacing native-language programs with "English immersion" or "English as a Second Language" approaches.
In Bethlehem, Pa., all non-English-speaking students are taught in English from their first day in school. Superintendent Thomas Doluisio pushed through the new policy after discovering that the district's large population of Hispanic students trailed behind in test scores, reading levels, and graduation rates.
In other cases, individual teachers are establishing English-immersion programs. Sally Peterson speaks only English to her kindergarten class at Glenwood Elementary School in Sun Valley, Calif.
"My students come in with no English and by the end of the year are fluent," Ms. Peterson says. "Next door, they start in Spanish and at the end of the year they are still in Spanish."
The school district "tolerates" her approach, Peterson says, "but most districts around the country have bought into native-language development because there's money in it." Some states augment federal funding, providing schools with extra dollars for every student enrolled in bilingual classes.
Lyons disputes this charge: "The extra funding is pretty minimal, and in many states there are no extra funds at all."
Lyons is optimistic that an increasing number of two-way language development programs, in which native English speakers and native Spanish speakers learn together, will help defuse the debate.
"We know that children can become fluently bilingual ... and meet high standards of success in academic areas," he says. "But language will always be one of those volatile subjects because it pertains to people's identities."