House Committee OKs Cap on Federal Bilingual Funds


Two days after Californians voted to dismantle bilingual education, a House committee approved a bill to prohibit schools from keeping any student in a federally funded bilingual education program for more than three years.

Playing off the sentiment of the state’s Proposition 227, the congressional bill also bars schools from putting children in such classes without parental approval and consolidates the $349-million budget for federal bilingual aid into a single block grant program.

Sponsored by Rep. Frank Riggs (R-Windsor), the bill was approved on a straight party-line vote, with 22 Republicans supporting the measure and 17 Democrats voting against it.

Although the Riggs bill is far from assured of becoming law, Thursday’s action is a harbinger of the intensifying struggle in Washington concerning the issue of bilingual education. Changes in existing programs appear almost inevitable, either this year or next, when the massive Elementary and Secondary Education Act--of which bilingual aid programs are a part--comes up for reauthorization.


Already, President Clinton, while opposing fixed limits, has come out in favor of a “goal” of moving students through bilingual training in three years. The administration is expected to propose further changes among its proposals for renewing the education act.

Proponents of the Riggs bill said the time limits are necessary because current bilingual teaching programs have failed to develop English proficiency quickly enough, trapping many immigrant and other non-English speaking children in second-class citizen status.

Opponents argued that, while improvements in the current system are needed, the bill’s three-year limit would force many into English-only classes before they are ready. And, because the bill cuts back federal dollars for teacher training, opponents say it would exacerbate the current shortage of qualified bilingual education instructors.

Nationwide, 3.2 million students are classified as being of limited English proficiency, according to the U.S. Department of Education, including almost 1.4 million in California. About 1.3 million students across the country receive some form of bilingual instruction, 900,000 of them in federally supported programs.


Supporters of Riggs’ bill suggested that bilingual programs often have been perpetuated for bureaucratic or political reasons in defiance of the wishes of parents and the best interests of students. To insist on quicker mastery of English by such students, the overwhelming majority of whom are Spanish speakers, “is not a denial of their culture at all. It is saying they are not going to be kept as second-class citizens,” Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.) said.

Rep. Matthew G. Martinez (D-Monterey Park), on the other hand, said: “Nobody is arguing that there does not need to be reform. There does need to be reform.” But, he said, the Riggs formula is too rigid.

Democrats cited studies concluding that it can take seven years or more for students who do not speak English to become proficient enough to master academic subjects taught in English.