Stories

Bilingual Education Priorities
By Mauro E. Mujica
Chairman of the Board/CEO of U.S.ENGLISH
Imagine a five-year-old boy who speaks only his native language. On his first day of school, he is placed in a classroom where the teacher and the other students speak a completely different language, one which he has never even heard before. There is no special program to help him learn the language–for him, it’s “sink or swim.” The boy’s father asks the school to transfer him out of the class into one more suited to his needs, one where he can actually understand what is going on in the classroom. The school refuses.

Bilingual education’s defenders would probably say that this story is a perfect example of why we need bilingual education. They would be wrong, because it is actually about a bilingual program run amok. In this case, five-year-old Travell is an English-speaking African American who was placed in a Cantonese-speaking kindergarten class in Oakland, California. His father is now suing the school district, trying to get his son moved into a regular English classroom.

Bilingual education programs rely on the unproven theory that a child must spend years becoming literate in his native language before he or she can properly learn a second language. Under their own theory, bilingual educators should not have placed an English-speaking child in a Cantonese-speaking class. But they did, and they then refused his father’s request to move him into an English classroom.

Why didn’t the school transfer Travell out of the Cantonese class once they realized he had been put there by mistake? Because it wasn’t a mistake! It was intentional. School officials admit that they sometimes put English-speaking students like Travell into bilingual classes that have extra spaces in order to round out the class size.

What motivates the bilingual education bureaucrats to make such a decision? Under normal circumstances, educators would be looking for ways to reduce the size of classes, rather than pulling in extra students to fill them up. Why would the school want to increase the size of its bilingual classes?

Perhaps the perverse incentives found in our current bilingual education policy are part of the explanation. Because extra funds are available for bilingual education, schools have an incentive to place (and keep) students in bilingual classes. While our goal should be to make sure every child of limited English proficiency learns English quickly and well, schools are not rewarded for doing so. Instead, they are rewarded for being inefficient at teaching English–the longer a student is not proficient in English, the longer the school can receive extra funding.

Not content with short-changing students of limited English proficiency, it seems some schools are hoping to use English-speaking students to milk the bilingual education cash cow. Bilingual education reform is long overdue, but has been politically difficult because bilingual education proponents have claimed they were acting in the best interests of the children. This incident exposes their true colors–Travell’s best interest is not found in a Cantonese classroom.

At the very least, federal and state bilingual education laws must be reformed to ensure that parents can easily remove their children from bilingual education programs. Because in America, a child shouldn’t be forced to file a lawsuit to get his education in English.

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