THE movement to make English the official language of the United States has picked up considerable steam recently with endorsements by Sen. Bob Dole and hearings in both the House and Senate. Unfortunately, many of the congressional advocates of official English are afraid to touch the single most damaging federally promoted multilingual program: bilingual education.
"The bill [to make English the official language] does not affect existing laws which provide bilingual and native language instruction. Those statutes are integral parts of our national language policy," Senate Government Affairs Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska said at hearings in December. Rep. Randy Cunningham (R) of California showed similar squeamishness when he chaired hearings on official English in the House in November.
What these lawmakers don't realize is that reforming bilingual education is more important than passing symbolic official English legislation. More than 1 million students are enrolled in programs that promote their native language at the expense of helping them learn English. The costs of these programs are astronomical: Estimates of federal, state, and local spending on native language programs run from $5 billion to $12 billion. And many parents don't want their children in these programs at all.
The affidavits filed by frustrated parents in New York - who are suing the state to get their children out of bilingual programs - are shocking. One parent, Maria Espinal, testified about what happened to her son after two years of bilingual education. "In third grade in the bilingual program, his teacher told me that he spoke neither English nor Spanish," she said.
When she told school officials that she wanted her son in regular English classes, they tried to pressure her into putting him in special education instead. What makes this case so frustrating is the fact that her son could speak English when he first started the program.
Another parent, Juana Zarzuela, testified that her son was transferred from bilingual education to special education, despite her objection to his being in either program.
"My son has been in bilingual education for five years, and in special education since 1994. [He] cannot read or write in English or Spanish," she said. Carmen Quinones testified: "My son is in ninth grade ... and has been in bilingual education since he entered the school system. My son is confused between Spanish and English."
Ada Jimenez testified that her grandson also cannot read or write in either language after five years of bilingual education. The reason is clear. As Ms. Jimenez said, "I personally met one of his teachers in the bilingual program who did not speak any English. We were told that because my grandson has a Spanish last name, he should remain in bilingual classes."
Parents aren't the only ones upset about this disastrous program. Edwin Selzer, an assistant principal for social studies at one New York high school, testified that "once a child was in a bilingual program, he remained in such a program and was never mainstreamed into English-speaking classes.
Even when students themselves asked to withdraw from the bilingual program, the assistant principal [for] foreign languages did not grant their request." He added: "Even the Spanish skills of students in bilingual programs were poor - many students graduating from Eastern District High School were illiterate in both English and Spanish."
Bilingual education isn't just a New York problem; it's a national problem. And the children in these programs aren't all immigrants; in fact, 60 percent are US-born American citizens, some with families who have lived here for several decades. If Hispanic children being deprived an education isn't enough to motivate Congress, maybe the realization that Anglo and African-American kids are also being forced into these programs will be.
Cherise Johnson's son was placed in a bilingual, dual-immersion program in a California school, despite the mother's objections. The school said there was no space available in regular classrooms. Dual immersion combines native English and other language-speakers for instruction in two languages. This type of instruction is being promoted in several cities in California, Michigan, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, according to Dr. Rosalie Porter, a leading expert in bilingual education.
San Francisco experimented with dual immersion and decided to abandon it. School Superintendent Bill Rojas banned 600 English-speaking African-American students from Spanish and Chinese bilingual programs because their test scores were far below those of African-American students in regular classes. "We would go and visit schools and find three African-American students in a class with 27 Chinese students. I'd see a teacher trying to talk multilingually.... I'd say, 'Aren't the English-speaking students getting less?' and she'd say, 'Yes'," Rojas told The Los Angeles Times last June.
Congressional supporters of official-language laws have latched on to a popular issue that enjoys support from about 78 percent of the population, polls show. The real test is whether they are willing to take on the bilingual education lobby, which has deprived or delayed mostly Hispanic children from learning English in American public schools.