Bilingual Education Update

Published August 1, 2001

By a wide margin (384-45), the U.S. House of Representatives approved sweeping changes to federal bilingual education programs as part of H.R. 1, the legislative vehicle for President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education plan.

Whether these reforms ultimately become law will depend upon negotiations made in conference between House and Senate legislators. That’s because the Senate bill makes one important funding change but essentially maintains the status quo at a much higher spending level, the result of an amendment introduced by Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-Arkansas).

“The [House] plan gives the local school districts the ability to make decisions as to how they are going to teach English as rapidly as possible,” observed Rep. Michael Castle (R-Delaware), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Education Reform. But he pointed out the plan also demanded accountability, so that if districts found their approaches were not working, “they are going to have to go on to the next experiment.”

The following are the major bilingual reforms that passed the House of Representatives, which also approved a significant funding increase for programs for English learners, but under a new funding formula:

States Choose Best Approach

States would choose the approach best suited to the needs of their English learners. Currently, three-fourths of federal bilingual funds are reserved for non-English, native language instruction. Although the House of Representatives has passed legislation eliminating this requirement in each of the past two sessions, it still remains the law. Both House and Senate bills eliminate this restriction.

The House plan would provide funding in the form of formula grants to states to allocate as they see fit, while the Senate plan would retain the current competitive-grant process.

Representative Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), who sponsored the original version of this measure, said school districts and parents know the bilingual education programs “simply aren’t working,” but the federal bias favoring these programs “forces school districts . . . to engage in programs that they simply wouldn’t do otherwise.”

State Performance Objectives

States receiving the formula grants would develop their own performance objectives for improving English fluency but also would have to demonstrate “adequate yearly progress” in transitioning English learners to proficiency in English. English learners would have to be tested in English after three consecutive years in U.S. schools.

Parental Consent

Parental consent for placement in bilingual education would be required. The House reforms would require school officials to make a “reasonable and substantial” effort to obtain the consent of parents before placing children in bilingual classrooms.

It has been well documented in Congressional hearings that many children are routinely placed in bilingual education programs without their parents’ permission under the status quo.

Dollars to the Classroom

The House plan mandates that 95 percent of available funds be used by recipients to provide assistance to English learners. The remaining 5 percent could be applied towards a wide range of allowable uses, including professional development and travel by teachers and administrators to the annual National Conference of Bilingual Educators. Administrative costs would be limited to 2 percent.

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].