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Administration’s Bilingual School Plan for Aiding New Immigrants Draws Fire

Times Staff Writer

The Bush Administration, citing a need to serve “new immigrant populations,” is proposing a bilingual education program that would effectively exclude school districts with large numbers of Latino and Asian students--the largest minority-language groups--officials said Thursday.

The new federal grant program would be available only to school districts starting classes in new languages, a prospect that angers many bilingual education proponents, members of Congress and officials in large school districts that would be ineligible because they already serve their bilingual students with specialized programs.

See Diversion of Funds

Critics of the proposal, announced in the Federal Register earlier this month, asserted that it would divert needed funds from vital programs already in existence and, more important, that the new program would take another step toward teaching English-only classes.

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Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said in a letter to Education Secretary Lauro F. Cavazos: “It is irresponsible to establish . . . new languages since English-only teachers are the likely candidates available.” There is a nationwide shortage of bilingual teachers.

However, William Wooten, acting deputy director of the Education Department’s bilingual programs, said that “we’re looking at new folks coming in, to test the waters and see if they need help” in learning English.

The exact amount of funding has not been decided, education officials said, but they are estimating that the new program would amount to $2 million out of the total $110-million federal bilingual budget. However, critics fear that up to $14 million will be shifted in the budget for the program.

Comparison to Reagan Policy

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The battle over the new concept, called a “proposed funding priority,” is the latest in a continuing war over federal bilingual programs during their 20-year history. During the last five years, the Ronald Reagan Administration attempted to shift the emphasis away from using students’ native languages and many advocates of bilingual education fear that the new proposal shows the Bush Administration to be continuing this effort.

Both English-only proponents and those who favor using native languages believe that their approach offers more benefits to students. Led by then-Education Secretary William J. Bennett, the Reagan Administration sought the “flexibility” to fund programs that emphasized “immersion” classes that taught students in English only, arguing that this method quickly brought students into the mainstream.

But many bilingual education proponents criticized that approach as insensitive, asserting that students learn more effectively when their native languages, along with English, are a part of classroom instruction.

James J. Lyons, counsel for the National Assn. for Bilingual Education, said that federal programs already are under-funded and called the proposal “a real smoke screen” for an end run on programs that use native languages. If the new plan goes into effect, he said, it would set a precedent for funding more English-only programs because of the shortage of bilingual teachers.

Need Underscored

In its published proposal, the Education Department said that over the last 20 years “new immigrant populations have continued to arrive, introducing new languages and cultures into many school systems whose existing bilingual programs were designed for other languages. The secretary is concerned that children whose language is new to a school district receive bilingual instruction comparable with that of those children already in bilingual education programs.”

The Federal Register announcement does not specify which new languages might be served. And Education Department officials portrayed the program as serving new locales, rather than new immigrants.

“Frankly, any language,” Wooten said when asked to cite new ones. He said that the program could work by serving Spanish speakers, or Hmongs, for example, who settle in areas that currently have no bilingual programs in their languages. “This is an attempt to find out whether this (problem) is worth addressing,” he said. “We’re trying to find out if there is” a group of students needing help.

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“I can’t say which languages” will be served, said Alicia Coro, acting director of federal bilingual programs. “It will depend on where the (grant) proposals come from.”

Lyons said: “It’s a helluva thing when officials don’t know what the problems are. This is worse than throwing money at a problem; this is throwing money out to see if there is a problem.”

Serve 100 Languages

The National Council of La Raza, a Latino rights organization that has studied bilingual education extensively, said that federal programs already serve 100 languages and that most students whose first language is not English are concentrated in a few states, including California, Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois.

If schools in these states are excluded because they already have programs in place, the new proposal “would divert resources away from areas of the greatest need,” complained Raul Yzaguirre, president of La Raza.

Peter Byron, supervisor of bilingual programs for the state of New York, said that 96% of his state’s students speak 25 languages used in bilingual programs, so the proposed shift “would be denying any child speaking any of those languages.”

‘Best Bang for Buck’

Similarly, officials in California said that some 50 languages are used in bilingual programs there and that most of the 1,030 school districts would be ineligible to participate in the proposed program because they already serve their students. Gilberto Lopez, who coordinates the state’s federal bilingual programs, called the proposal “an ill use of federal money.” Providing resources to states like California give “the best bang for the buck,” he said.

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April 8 is the deadline for comment on the proposal.


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