English Learners Not Left Behind

Published January 1, 2002

The education plan announced on November 30 by House and Senate Conferees includes bold and unprecedented reforms of federal bilingual education programs.

In fact, the nation’s more than 3.5 million English learners–three-quarters of whom are Spanish-speaking–stand to be among the biggest winners when President George W. Bush signs the “No Child Left Behind” education plan into law, as he is expected to do. Important reforms include:

Bilingual Bias Eliminated

States will be able to choose the approach best suited to the needs of their English learners. Currently, three-fourths of federal bilingual funds are reserved for programs that teach in students’ non-English, native language. The new plan eliminates that bias and instead provides funding in the form of formula grants to states to allocate however they see fit.

Priority One: English Fluency

Improving English fluency is the bottom line. States receiving formula grants must in turn develop, and then meet, annual measurable performance objectives to track progress in improving English fluency.

Corrective actions for programs that fail to show such progress may include loss of some federal funds and/or being required to replace their method of instruction and program personnel. English learners must be tested in English after three consecutive years in U.S. schools.

The plan also requires that bilingual teachers themselves be fluent in English.

More Choice and Accountability

The reforms include expanded parental options and greater accountability. Schools must explain to parents why their child was selected for bilingual education, how specifically the programs will help their child, and when their child can be expected to graduate to an English-speaking classroom. Parents have the right to remove their child immediately from bilingual programs and to choose their child’s instructional program if more than one is offered.

Dollars to the Classroom

The plan mandates that 95 percent of formula grants be used by recipients to provide assistance to English learners. The remaining 5 percent can go toward a wide range of uses, including professional development, travel by teachers and administrators to National Association of Bilingual Educators’ conventions, and other activities. However, administrative costs must be limited to approximately 3 percent of the total grant.

Currently, bilingual education programs are in place in all 50 states. While they vary widely, they are based on a common approach that holds that students will have an easier time acquiring English as their second language if they first concentrate on their non-English, native language.

As a result, students can remain in bilingual education programs for seven or eight years, sometimes even longer. Some federally funded bilingual education programs do not even begin to teach written English until the fifth grade.

The new agreement takes several important steps to ensure that America’s English learners will have opportunities to acquire the skills they need to succeed as early as possible in their K-12 schooling.

“For too long, Limited English Proficient students have been denied the chance to master English and succeed academically,” said House Education Committee Chairman John Boehner. “They’ve been trapped in classes taught in their native language that never give them an early chance to learn English, and federal education policy has helped keep them there.”

Since California voters passed a ballot initiative in 1998, effectively ending bilingual education in the state with the nation’s largest population of English learners, reform has spread rapidly throughout the nation. Voters in Arizona approved a similar measure in 2000, while initiatives are expected to appear on the ballots in Massachusetts and Colorado in 2002.

Meanwhile, policy leaders in other states have chosen to reform their bilingual programs in other ways. Connecticut adopted a 30-month limit on how long students can remain in transitional language programs, while Chicago and Denver public schools have in place a three-year limit.

In New York City, the Board of Education last year created new English immersion classes to give parents a choice of how they wanted their children to learn English. Mayor-elect Mike Bloomberg supported those reforms during his campaign.

“Speaking multiple languages is great and we should not forget our roots,” he said. “But without a comprehension of English, it will be difficult to share in the American dream.”

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