Since 1998, when California voters approved Proposition 227 and virtually ended the state’s bilingual education programs, state- and district-wide reform of bilingual education has spread rapidly throughout the United States. At the federal level, however, such reform has repeatedly met with roadblocks. Until now.
President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education plan proposes unprecedented changes in the way the nation’s more than 3 million English learners will learn.
“In order for all students to meet high standards, students need to master English as quickly as possible,” the plan stipulates.
To attain that goal, the Bush plan seeks to remove the strong preference that federal funding streams currently give to programs that teach in students’ non-English, native language over those that rely on the structured English immersion approach. The plan draws upon many of the most positive improvements included in recent Congressional proposals, as well as successful innovations made around the country in recent years at the state and local level. These include:
Formula grants to states would replace the current “competitive grant” system administered by the Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs, which awards grants to local education providers based upon an application and review process. Formula grants, or block grants as they are often called, are given directly to states to allocate however state officials deem most appropriate.
Let States Decide
States would be allowed to choose the approach best-suited to the needs of their English learners. Under current law, federal programs that instruct English learners in English are designated “special alternative programs” and allotted less than one-fourth of federal bilingual funds. The House of Representatives has passed legislation to eliminate this counterproductive requirement in each of its past two sessions.
“The standard is English literacy. The goal is equal opportunity,” candidate Bush had said in 1999.
Limiting non-English instruction to three years was originally a Clinton administration proposal, based on an emerging consensus that this was the most appropriate duration for English learners to spend in transitional, non-English language programs. School districts in Chicago and Denver are among those that have adopted a three-year limit; Connecticut currently employs a 30-month limit. Last fall, Arizona joined California in passing a ballot initiative to switch entirely to English immersion.
Elsewhere, English learners are segregated in separate classrooms and taught in their native language, often remaining there for seven years or even longer. In some New York City bilingual programs, the teaching of written English does not even begin until the fifth grade.
Currently, many federal bilingual grants are awarded without any mention of measurable, performance-based objectives. Others propose measurable objectives but fail to meet them. In fact, recent studies have identified federally funded bilingual programs in which not a single English learner demonstrated any measurable progress towards English fluency in a given year.
The Bush plan would let state officials determine their own program objectives for improving English fluency. Penalties for states that failed to meet their own objectives would include the loss of significant portions of federal funding.
Bush Plan Not the Only One
The new Congressional session already has seen other legislation introduced to reform federal bilingual programs. One proposal from Tom Tancredo (R-Colorado) would require informed parental consent prior to students’ placement in bilingual programs. His “Parents Know Best” proposal passed the House last year but failed to make it to the Senate floor.
New Congressman Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) has introduced “The English Language Acquisition Funding Fairness Act,” which would abolish the current 75:25 funding preference for bilingual over English immersion programs. In part, Flake’s proposal would ensure that California and Arizona, with their large populations of English learners, will not lose their share of federal funding as a result of state policies mandating the use of English immersion.
Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute. His email address is [email protected].