English-Only Doesn't Work

In September 1999, then Texas Governor George Bush told an audience during the New Hampshire presidential primary, "English-only would mean to people 'me, not you'."

The few times there's been talk of a federal law mandating English-only during his White House tenure, Bush didn't budge from that position. However, when House and Senate Republicans pounded him for championing a non-punitive immigration reform measure, he backpedaled slightly and supported the Senate's tough English-only amendment as well as a competing amendment that simply touts English.

The Senate's English-only amendments are, at best, empty symbolism, and at worst, a xenophobic, race-tinged act that imperils programs that can help non-English students and adults attain English proficiency.

Bush knows that. As Texas governor, he enthusiastically backed bi-lingual education, and for a good reason. It is the quickest and fastest path for non-English speaking immigrants to assimilate, and ultimately attain citizenship. If Congress's English only amendment stands it would undermine that effort. But it wouldn't be the first time that a shortsighted Congress shot itself in the foot on the issue. In 1996, the House passed an English only bill. The following year Arizona Senator John McCain proposed a "non binding" Senate resolution endorsing English plus. The House has proposed amendments and even legislation over the years to dump or severely curtail funding for bi-lingual education.

The English-only drive got a rocket boost in 1998 when businessman Ron Unz dumped millions into the campaign to pass Proposition 227 in California. The initiative's premise was simple. Bi-lingual education was costly, wasteful and ineffectual, and non-English speaking students -- mainly Hispanics -- didn't learn a lick of English in bi-lingual classes. Some charged that the programs were a sneaky way to promote multi-culturalism.

The proposition drastically slashed funding for bi-lingual education programs. English-only proponents boasted that students would learn English in a year or less if they simply spoke it. The proposition passed by a landslide. English-only quickly became the national rage.

In the next few years, English only groups popped up in dozens of states. They subtly played on the public fear that hordes of mostly poor, non-white, foreign born immigrants were out to subvert English speaking values and civilization. Voters and state legislators in 27 states bought the English only pitch, and enacted statues that specified English only as the official language.

But four years after Proposition 227 ignited the English-only firestorm, educators took a closer look at the proposition to see if it magically transformed non-English speaking students into proficient English speakers. They used language census figures from the California Department of Education.

The results were dismal. Less than half of non-English speaking students enrolled in English immersion programs had attained proficiency in English. There was no tangible evidence that English immersion programs improved English skills of students faster or more effectively than students in bi-lingual education courses. Many parents demanded waivers to enroll their children in bi-lingual programs. By 2003, more than 100,000 students were taking bi-lingual classes.

Meanwhile, nearly half a million limited English-speaking students were not "mainstreamed" into English programs. That meant they received no special help in learning English, and consequently their English language skills remained poor to non-existent.

The failure of the English-only approach to deliver a new generation of flawless English speaking students was no surprise. A decade earlier, a federal study to determine whether bi-lingual education helped or hindered the attainment of English proficiency concluded that bi-lingual education was not the losing proposition that English only advocates claimed. It found that well-funded and implemented programs enabled limited English speaking students to catch up to their English fluent students at a faster rate. It also found that it took students nearly five years to fully master English, and not the one year that English-only backers claimed an immersion program would take.

The English-only amendment fuels the racially tinged myth that immigrants don't want to learn English. The gargantuan waiting lists for enrollment in adult English classes at schools and community centers shatter that myth. Still, passage of an English only amendment in the immigration bill could embolden state legislators to further slash programs that help limited English speaking students. The Bush administration has walked a fine line on the issue of bi-lingual education. It has not slashed federal funding for these programs. But it also has not increased funding for them in the past five years even though the demand for the programs is greater than ever.

The Senate recognized the mischief that an English-only amendment could cause. Buried in its counter-amendment that declared English a "common and unifying language," it pledged not to cut federal aid for bilingual services and programs. Bush has repeatedly said that speaking English is the fast track to citizenship. State imposed English-only laws won't speed anyone along that track. A federal English only amendment won't either.


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