Bilingual Education Struggles
Reina Schmitz could hardly believe her ears. She and other parents of the Hacienda/La Puente schools' District Bilingual Advisory Committee (DBAC), a group that monitors the southern California district's bilingual education programs, were in the middle of their May 25 meeting when they heard that the local school board was doubting the worth of bilingual education. Schmitz fumed as she listened to how the board wanted to hold a "study session" June 11 to determine if the cost of the programs was too much for the district to bear.Led by one conservative member who, according to Schmitz, has supported anti-immigrant initiatives and has testified in hearings against bilingual education, the five-member school board was moving to eliminate bilingual education for kindergartners and first graders, to cut all funding for teachers who sought bilingual credentials and to prohibit reading in Spanish for all grades. In short, the idea was to get rid of everything that had to do with bilingual education and turn this predominantly Latino district into an English-only district by September 1996."When I heard about that, I got really upset," said Schmitz, whose 10-year-old Spanish-speaking daughter would be affected by the changes. "I'm an immigrant. It's an attack on me, my children and my community."A field organizer for Service Employees International Union, Local 399, Schmitz knew that the parents would have to move fast if they hoped to block the board's attacks on bilingual education. She asked volunteers to sign up May 25, then called the first planning meeting of four or five people June 1. By the group's June 8 meeting at a local church, 75 people were involved, including not only parents and teachers but many local elected officials whom Schmitz had enlisted to help.It was agreed that one committee would make picket signs while another would descend upon the neighborhood supermarkets and churches on Sunday to pass out flyers and convince people to take part in the following Tuesday's protest and vigil. Others would collect signatures for a petition supporting bilingual education. Schmitz herself spent all Saturday faxing the news media. By Monday night "everybody knew what was going on," Schmitz said. The volunteers had given out more than 10,000 flyers, more than 500 signatures had been collected and the signs were ready.On Tuesday evening, June 11, more than 500 angry parents, students, teachers and community members picketed the school board's study session. Holding signs that read "Support Bilingual Education!" and "Two Languages Are Better Than One," the protesters informed the board that the community would not give up their bilingual education programs without a long fight. Schmitz's fifth-grade daughter led the chants."They were shocked," Schmitz said. Four of the board members backed down, leaving the one who proposed the changes, Katherine Venturoso, unsupported. Far from ending their actions there, however, Schmitz and the parents are still petitioning the board to take an official stance in support of bilingual education, as Venturoso has again proposed anti-bilingual-education initiatives."We want them to make it official," Schmitz said. "I know they don't like to be in the spot, but if that's the only way, then they're going to be in the spot for a long time. We have to remind them of their commitment. The reason they got elected was so that they could be the watchdogs for the parents and for the children. But so far, they have failed us royally."PARENTS MAKING WAVESThe Hacienda/La Puente parents' struggle demonstrates that at a time when conservative legislators and organizations are seeking to make bilingual education the next target on their political agendas, parents are emerging as one of the most effective and powerful groups in defending and developing bilingual education. But it is not only parents of English learners but all progressives who must recognize the value of bilingual education and take an active role in strengthening their districts' programs.California now faces anti-bilingual-education legislation in the form of Republican assembly member Brooks Firestone's A.B. 2310, a bill that would permit districts to adopt their own teaching approaches, including teaching only in English. Florida, another state with large numbers of immigrant students, does not certify bilingual teachers or appropriate funding for bilingual education programs, according to Dr. Rick Jenks, a professor of multilingual/multicultural education at Florida State University. "Bilingual education in our state is pretty spotty," he said.Confronted with these disheartening situations, parents need to act -- and act now. "Parents are the most important piece in making sure that bilingual education advances the way it should," said Sylvina Rubinstein, executive director of the California Association for Bilingual Education (CABE). Rubinstein stressed the need for parents to have access to information and research, as well as a forum to discuss concerns and ideas with the people who are educating their children."Parents are wonderful at reminding everyone what should be happening," Rubinstein said. "They are the ones who can tell you that, yes, my child is learning English and just learning, period."Indeed, it seems that in most districts, low parent participation often correlates with weaker bilingual education programs. Some bilingual education campaigns have not operated to save these programs but to upgrade existing ones.In Providence, R.I., several years ago, parents and a members of Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE), a social justice organization, came together to launch a campaign to improve the school district's bilingual education services. Latino parents were complaining that they had virtually no say in their children's placement. Many of the parents did not understand the main distinctions between English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) and bilingual instruction, nor did they know that they could choose to place their children in one or the other -- apparently because no one had ever bothered to explain the programs to them.Traditionally, ESL focuses solely on teaching students English "cold turkey," while bilingual education emphasizes the importance of continuing to teach students a variety of subjects in their home language and then moving them into learning English once their language development skills are solidly grounded. While ESL is still considered effective for older learners who are already literate in one language, researchers have overwhelmingly found the latter method to be one of the best ways for children and adults who lack proficiency in their native languages to learn English."By continuing to learn in their own language, children are learning everything that they need to learn, like any child," Rubenstein said, "and by doing that, their cognitive development continues at a normal pace."GETTING PISSEDMaria Guerrero, co-chair of the DARE campaign in Providence, also learned in the course of fighting to improve her son's education that the Spanish bilingual teachers did not speak Spanish correctly and that the bilingual and ESL classes received lower-quality learning materials than the mainstream classes."Parents were just pissed, pissed, pissed," said Shannah Kurland, director of DARE. "Nobody had ever gotten a group of parents together and asked them what they wanted to do about this problem. The campaign really blew the administration away because they never expected that they were going to get cussed out by such a large group of immigrant parents."The DARE campaign eventually forced the Providence district to make major concessions to the parents. The district agreed to staff the school-registration center with people who were multilingual, to give the parents more autonomy in their children's placement, to educate the parents more fully on the differences between programs and to include them in an advisory committee that monitors the bilingual program."A lot of policies were put on paper that never were on paper before," Kurland said. "We also got some really good logistical changes around translation and curriculum, and I think we shifted the overall debate toward strengthening bilingual education. The parents have more of a sense of power over what's happening to their kids, and an ability to intervene. The school department is much quicker to respond to their responsibility of having things available multilingually. We moved the educational experience to something where parents who have been involved in this organizing campaign now know they have a very clear path to demand and get the stuff that they need."In California -- even while Proposition 187, the Firestone bill and proposals for the elimination of affirmative action threaten to set a trend for the eradication of all programs benefiting immigrant groups -- parents in the San Jose Unified School District have also managed to significantly improve their schools' bilingual education programs. Working with a court order issued from a 24-year-old lawsuit brought by Latino parents who protested the unequal distribution of resources within the district, parents now take an active role in monitoring the bilingual program, serving on advisory committees as well as conducting yearly reviews of the program."Before, the parents were basically rubber stamps," said Jorge Gonzalez, chair of Raza Si, a 15-year-old social justice organization that worked with the parents to institute these changes. "They weren't clear of their role, but we've tried as an organization to really encourage parents to participate in these committees. The District Bilingual Advisory Committee is now very well organized, critical and clear about what they are supposed to be doing."MEETING THE NEEDSBilingual education boasts a long history, with programs educating non-English-speaking German, Scandinavian and French immigrant children existing as early as the 1800s in Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York. In the early part of the 20th century in San Francisco, Chinese American immigrant children had to rely on community after-school Chinese programs to get the education they were not receiving in the district's English-only classes.It was only when Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 (often referred to as Title VII) in response to Southwest Chicano organizations' demands for equal-opportunity education that the federal government officially recognized its role of meeting the "special educational needs" of English learners. Before 1968, areas with large percentages of English learners, such as Dade County, Fla., had been experimenting with their own bilingual education programs, sometimes even succeeding with what are known as "double immersion" programs: classrooms where children who speak mainly English are integrated with children who speak mainly a non-English language. In such programs, previously monolingual English students become fluent in an additional language, while the English-learning children not only learn English but retain their native language skills.Although Title VII funds were available to any district that wanted them, it took a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court case to spread bilingual education at a national level. In Lau v. Nichols, Chinese public-school students brought a class-action suit against the San Francisco Unified School District, arguing that the district's English-only instruction in classrooms did not meet their needs. Parents asked how the district could claim that they were providing Chinese American students equal-opportunity education if the students did not understand the teachers. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the students, writing in their decision that "there is no equality of treatment merely by providing students with the same facilities, textbooks, teachers and curriculum; for students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education."For the next 10 years, bilingual education programs across the country grew rapidly, but as more federal dollars were invested, the programs fell prey to politics. Instead of championing the creation of fully bilingual students, legislators and policy makers viewed bilingual education classes as transitional programs for students to make the full shift from their native language into English."One of the sad stories is that children have lost cultures when they lose their language," Rubinstein said.Maria Guerrero's son, despite being placed in a monolingual English class, now maintains his Spanish through speaking at home and keeping his grandmother company. "I think my children have more culture than they would have had" if they lost their Spanish, Guerrero said. "And that gives them that much more strength, which is very important in my country."A THREAT TO AMERICANIZATION?Bilingual education has always been a controversial topic, Kenji Hakuta writes in his book Mirror of Language, because "at stake are issues that strike at the heart of American identity." Hakuta explains that the most vocal opponents of bilingual education often see the program as government-funded "maintenance" of immigrants' native languages as opposed to a "transitional" stage to English. As such, Hakuta writes, bilingual education "is regarded as a threat to the status of English and to the ideals of Americanization of immigrants that English represents."For these very reasons, two states with high percentages of immigrant populations, California and Florida, already have laws making English the official language, with other states and even the federal government rapidly following suit. According to the Asian Law Caucus (ALC), a San Francisco organization that provides legal assistance in low-income Asian communities, the "English-Only Movement" is surging, with groups such as U.S. English, English First and the American Ethnic Coalition gaining both prominence and popularity. Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole endorses English Only initiatives, and while President Clinton supports bilingual education, he has not said that he would not sign English Only legislation.Gloria Guinto, a staff attorney with the ALC, notes that there are now two pieces of federal legislation pending in both houses of Congress that would make English the official language of the United States and restrict the use of non-English languages: S. 356 and H.R. 351. Guinto says S. 356 would prevent federal workers from speaking any language other than English while at work, and H.R. 351 would specifically repeal the language-assistance requirements of the Voting Rights Act and exempt counties from providing bilingual election materials to voters who need language assistance.In addition to legislation, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona, a case that challenges the constitutionality of the state's official English Only legislation.Ironically, these backlashes against non-English languages and speakers are coming at a time when politicians talk constantly about the need for our country to participate in the "global economy.""As a nation, we remain unremarkably uninterested in developing second-language proficiency or even in acquiring basic information about other peoples and their values, attitudes and traditions," wrote Dr. G. Richard Tucker, head of the Department of Modern Languages at Carnegie Mellon University, in his congressional testimony against S. 356.Gonzalez says that is exactly what Raza Si in San Jose hopes to change in the long run. "We want to have people look at bilingual ed not from a chauvinistic, nationalistic point of view, but from a very practical view, as an extra resource." He stressed the importance of reaching not the English Only advocates but "the policy makers, superintendents, board members, teachers and parents -- anybody and everybody who has a stake or is open-minded."And despite the attacks on bilingual education, Rubinstein believes that these programs will continue to grow. "Although in the next 10 years you cannot take bilingual education out of the political and socioeconomic context, from an educational point of view, I see bilingual education in expansion, contrary to what people might see," said Rubinstein. "The population is here and cannot be stopped. Little by little, our education systems are beginning to acknowledge that it is an advantage to be bilingual."