Texas debates blueprint for 'model' bilingual classes

Kindergarten teacher Mary Marquez raises her voice above the din of the classroom. "Clean up your tables and then line up in front of the door," she orders.

The response is immediate -- which is noteworthy because at the beginning of the school year nine months ago, this class of Spanish-speaking children at Travis Elementary School in Houston would have returned the order with blank stares. Today, English is well understood.

At this grade level there is little dispute that bilingual education is effective in helping students who speak a foreign language learn English and progress through US public schools. But is bilingual education a help or hindrance to such students beyond the early years of elementary school?

That question is getting a lot of attention in Texas, where a federal district judge has ordered a statewide expansion of bilingual education that would give this state one of the most extensive bilingual programs in the country.

"If the court order is fully implemented, Texas will have a model bilingual program," says Peter Roos of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF).

Indeed, any expansion of the Texas bilingual education requirements would be in contrast to a backing away from stiffer requirements at the national level. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell withdrew earlier this year new bilingual education regulations proposed by the Carter administration. He called those regulations "harsh, inflexible, burdensome, unworkable, and incredibly costly."

MALDEF was a plaintiff on behalf of children of Mexican origin in Texas in a lawsuit dating back to 1970 that resulted in the federal district court ruling earlier this year. The ruling mandates bilingual education in all public school grades in Texas. Currently, state law only requires it through the third grade and provides funds for schools that choose to offer bilingual training in the fourth and fifth grades.

The court-ordered plan must be phased in by 1986 and calls ultimately for bilingual instruction in all subjects except music, art, and physical education. It would increase the bilingual student body in Texas from 133,000 currently to about 227,000, according to estimates by the Texas Education Agency (TEA). Total public school enrollment in Texas stands at about 2.9 million.

Currently in Texas, students beyond the fifth grade designated as having "limited English proficiency" are put in English-as-second-language programs. For at least one or two class periods per day, these students are given intensive instruction in English. In other classes, like math, or science, they must fend for themselves because these subjects are not taught in their native language.

The debate in Texas over expanding bilingual education has been heated. State Attorney General Mark White has pledged to appeal the court decision.

A bilingual task force set up by Texas Gov. William P. Clements has recommended a program more modest than that detailed by the federal district judge, although the court ruling has the effect of law in the state. The task force urged expanding bilingual education through all elementary grades, while sticking with the English-as-second-language approach in the last three grades of high school. Under this plan there would be a "transitional program" in the intervening grades that could include bilingual or English-as-second-language training. Meanwhile, the Texas Legislature is considering a bill to expand bilingual education and increase state funding for such programs.

The TEA and local school administrators agree that one of the basic problems in expanding bilingual education would be finding enough certified instructors.

Robert Tipton, a consultant to the TEA on bilingual education, says there are some 7,100 bilingual teachers in the Texas public schools now. He estimates that roughly 20,000 would be needed to comply with the program mandated by the federal court. Bilingual instructors are generally in short supply all over the country.

The TEA says the expanded bilingual program also would cost more, although it has not estimated the price of the program. Currently, the state provides $25 a year for each pupil in its bilingual program.

But "the bottom line is we don't know if bilingual education really helps beyond the fifth grade; there is some evidence it creates a crutch," asserts Dr. Tipton. Learning a new language after about the age of 12 is generally more difficult than before that age, he says. As a result students allowed to keep studying most subjects in their native language in a bilingual program may never learn English adequately, Dr. Tipton says.

MALDEF attorney Norma Solis disagrees. "English [as a second language] is not effective. It must be part of a full bilingual program to work," she says. Mrs. Solis agrees that the aim should be to help students achieve proficiency in English and exit from any bilingual program. But she maintains that in higher grade levels not teaching all subjects in bilingual classes, "excludes students [with limited English proficiency] from too much of the curriculum."

Felix Martinez, a consultant on bilingual education to the Houston independent school district, says a more flexible program than that mandated by the federal district judge would be best. Mr. Martinez says bilingual education in the upper grade levels would be beneficial mainly to those students who do not have a solid educational background in their native language. However, he says, for students with good educations in their native languages, "the English-as-a-second-language approach is actually better."

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