NYC Task Force Embraces Bilingual Reform

Published December 1, 2000

At a public hearing October 17, the Mayor’s Task Force for Bilingual Education in New York City opened the floor to parents, activists, and educators to voice their concerns about bilingual programs.

At issue was a recent New York City Board of Education study, which showed students in English as a Second Language (ESL) programs strongly outperform their peers in bilingual education. (See “Debate Over Bilingual Ed Moves to Big Apple,” School Reform News, November 2000.)

In a commentary that appeared in the New York Daily News before the meeting, task force chairman and former Deputy Mayor Randy Mastro had written, “Let’s be honest about bilingual education: It has failed our city’s children and needs fundamental reform.”

Mastro’s group released a draft report offering a broad range of proposed reforms, many of which were based on measures implemented elsewhere around the nation. The group’s recommendations included:

  • Create new English immersion programs into which parents could choose to place their children.
  • Establish a three-year limit for students enrolled in bilingual programs.
  • Revise and/or replace exit and entrance criteria for all programs for English learners.

The public school systems in Denver and Chicago already have adopted a three-year limit on bilingual program enrollment, and Connecticut schools have a 30-month limit.

Ron Unz, who spearheaded California’s Proposition 227, which effectively ended bilingual programs there in 1998, addressed the task force meeting, presenting his case for New York schools to adopt English immersion.

The panel also heard from several parents and students, many of them directly involved in the city’s ESL and bilingual programs.

Mayor Rudolf Giuliani announced in a separate statement that he supported a two-year limit on bilingual programs. He did not call for completely eliminating bilingual education, the remedy Unz put forward.

New York City’s bilingual programs are in large part the outcome of a consent decree reached in a 1974 lawsuit by Aspira, an Hispanic advocacy group. The decree mandates some level of classroom instruction in students’ non-English native language. The task force recommended that the terms of the consent degree be reviewed.

Former schools chancellor Ramon Cortines, who commissioned the Board of Education’s ESL study, expressed his agreement with the panel’s recommendations in an interview with The New York Times. He described the Big Apple’s bilingual education establishment as “a jobs operation . . . protected by a highly organized, politicized group of people that see anything that threatens bilingual education as threatening to their position in K-12 education, higher education or some of the special interest groups.”

Barring legislative action, the fate of the city’s bilingual programs rests in the hands of the Board of Education. New York law permits only the state legislature, and not citizens’ groups, to place initiatives on the statewide ballot. While a proposition could appear on the ballot in New York City, the Board would not be bound by its outcome.

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute. He can be contacted at [email protected].