One of the most alarming problems in American education today is this: Thirty percent of all Hispanic students drop out of school. That's two times the dropout rate for African-Americans and four times the rate for whites.
While Vice President Al Gore earlier this month announced "The Clinton Administration's Hispanic Education Action Plan" - $600 million in increased federal spending aimed at addressing this problem - a simpler, more direct, more effective solution has been all but overlooked. Indeed, the vice president and the US Department of Education would better serve the public by using the bully pulpit to stress a central fact: Parents should have the right to decide whether or not their children receive bilingual education.
Bilingual education provides a tepid approach to English instruction. It delays for years the time when students will go to "mainstream" classrooms. Many children are in bilingual programs for five to seven years and do not even learn to write English until the fourth or fifth grade. The shift to a mainstream classroom is often traumatic. Thus, the staggering dropout rate, while troubling, should not be surprising.
Adding insult to injury, many Hispanic parents, particularly new immigrants unfamiliar with US schools and legal customs, have been pressured to keep their children in bilingual programs when they've sought alternatives. Some of these incidents were documented in a new report on bilingual education by the US Commission on Civil Rights.
For legal reasons - as well as just plain decency - parents shouldn't be traumatized just because they want their children to learn English promptly. Linda Chavez, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, notes: "With the exception of Florida, in the 10 states with the largest number of bilingual students, a child must be removed from a bilingual program upon the parent's request." She also says: "If you want your child out of the program, you must be persistent and remind school officials that you have a legal right to remove your child from it."
It is ironic that while the administration spends time talking about its support for public school choice, it has quietly presided over a situation where many Hispanic parents have been stripped of their right to decide the type of education their child should receive within a designated public school.
Meanwhile, the administration's proposals to end the Hispanic education crisis represents a combination of a larger serving of some questionably effective programs and new programs that will provide limited benefits at best.
Some $393 million of the proposed $600 million comes from a 5.3 percent increase in funding for Title I, the largest existing Department of Education program. Title I was designed to provide assistance to all disadvantaged elementary and secondary school students, 32 percent of whom are Hispanic. Yet, the program has a mixed record. Since its inception in 1965, Congress has overhauled Title I eight times. A US Department of Education report in 1993 stated: "The program today does not appear to be helping to close the learning gap."
The assortment of other administration proposals includes $66 million to train 20,000 teachers to teach students English and help adults learn the language. Some $30 million is being proposed to help low-achieving schools "receive expert advice to adopt research-based models to improve teaching and learning."
The White House and Hispanic parents both seem to know that it is critically important to help children learn English at an early age. While the education bureaucracy may not want to inform parents about their rights to remove children from bilingual classrooms, they should, at bare minimum, not get in the way of those parents who want to do so. Parents are best suited to make choices about their children's welfare.
* Don Soifer is program director of the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, a public policy research group in Arlington, Va.