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A Problem in Taking Off a Cap

Education Secretary William J. Bennett is proposing that local school districts be given more flexibility in their bilingual-education programs. He thinks that federal law is too rigid, and that therefore students remain too dependent on their native languages rather than becoming fluent in English as soon as possible. His ideas sound good in theory, but Congress should be wary about making any changes in existing law.

The aim of any good bilingual program should be for the students to learn English as quickly as possible, because English is, after all, the language that the child will need in order to succeed in this country. Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court have both found in the past that many children need instruction for a time in their native languages until they become proficient in English. Otherwise they fall behind the rest of their class, get discouraged and eventually even drop out. In order to ensure true bilingual instruction, Congress placed a cap on how much federal money could be used for classes taught strictly in English. It is this cap that Bennett wants removed.

There is a potential problem with his suggestion. Districts that didn’t especially like the concept in the first place might interpret such a move as rolling back the commitment to equal educational opportunity for Latinos, Vietnamese or other affected groups. If Congress does make any change, which is unlikely, it should also beef up enforcement mechanisms to make sure that all the children who need these programs have access to them.

Los Angeles seems to have been able to find the flexibility within existing law to create a good experimental program at Eastman Avenue Elementary School in which some students receive bilingual instruction and others are taught strictly in English, depending on their needs. That program, which will be duplicated at several other elementary schools as the result of a school board decision this summer, has improved students’ reading scores. In English. And that’s what it’s all about.

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