Los Angeles Times
Thursday, April 16, 1998
In Any Language, the Fight Is On Over Bilingual Instruction
In Albuquerque, they're calling for an end to the program. In
Denver, Latinos battle school officials over modified plan.
By LOUIS SAHAGUN, Times Staff Writer
ALBUQUERQUE--Eight weeks before Californians vote on a controversial
initiative to abolish bilingual education, political battles over how to
teach students who do not speak English are intensifying across the West.
As the children of immigrants pour into school
systems not equipped to handle their numbers or needs, the fight over how
bilingual education is done--or whether it is done at all--is pitting Latinos
against Latinos, Anglos against Latinos, communities against school boards
and school boards against federal authorities.
Nowhere is that more evident than in Albuquerque
and Denver, which have a combined 40,000 students in bilingual programs.
Both cities have been blasted by the U.S. Department of Education's Office
for Civil Rights for failing to adequately fund, staff and evaluate bilingual
education. And both have been disrupted by student walkouts in protest
of their troubled programs.
But the dissatisfaction in these cities over
bilingual education--originally intended to prevent students from falling
behind in academic subjects taught in English while they were learning
the language--has taken opposite forms.
A lawsuit recently was filed in federal court
against Albuquerque Public Schools seeking to eliminate native-language
instruction altogether . Last week in Denver, a national Latino group that
supports bilingual education started funding a grass-roots effort to overhaul
that city's program.
"Children are the losers when ideologies
and politics superimpose themselves on educational issues, but whether
or not we can stop that from happening is a tough question," said
Ofelia Miramontes, an associate professor of education at the University
of Colorado at Boulder and an expert on bilingual programs.
"The bottom line is that it takes time
for kids to become proficient in English," she said. "Clearly,
programs that are not adequately funded and shift from year to year in
political winds do not add up to academic proficiency."
A year ago, the Education Department ruled
that Denver Public Schools--which has a 48% Latino student population and
supports the general concept of bilingual education--had failed to adequately
teach those with limited English skills.
The district then revamped its program so
children would be immersed in English-only courses within three years,
instead of remaining in the bilingual program indefinitely.
But federal authorities--and a grass-roots
parents group called Padres Unidos (United Fathers)--would rather have
the district develop ways to measure when children are ready to leave native-language
instruction. The office of civil rights recently referred the matter to
the Justice Department, which could decide to cut off $30 million a year
in funding for the district.
In the meantime, Padres Unidos has started
receiving money and technical support from the National Council of La Raza.
Its president, Raul Yzaguirre, is an advocate
of bilingual education and is arguably the most influential Latino activist
"Denver's Hispanic community has been
extraordinarily patient with the school system that has never been fully
responsive to the needs of the community's children," Yzaguirre said.
"By making this commitment in Denver, we recognize that everyone has
a stake in improving the educational status of Latino children; it is not
just up to the public school system."
Added Padres Unidos spokesman Pierre Jimenez:
"Three years is just not enough time to acquire high levels of proficiency.
We believe a child can become literate faster in a bilingual education
approach lasting five to seven years, provided it is properly funded and
implemented--which has never happened in Denver."
Denver Public Schools Supt. Irv Moscowitz
said the opposition to his modified program is "neurotic."
"We're saying three years might be the
limit, but a teacher can defend the position to keep a kid in bilingual
education longer if needed," he said. "There seems to be a deliberate
misinterpretation of our policy going on. That is a shame because it's
over the heads of our kids and driven by adult values and issues."
In Albuquerque, Lizet Aranda, a 16-year-old
junior at Highland High School, wishes all of her bilingual education instructors
were fluent in Spanish. When one of them kept calling the tentacles of
a dissected squid testiculos, or testicles, she had to laugh out loud.
"We spent half the period arguing about
it," Lizet recalled. "Finally, somebody opened the textbook and
showed her the right word: 'tenticulos.' "
Lizet is among 14 plaintiffs in the lawsuit
filed against Albuquerque Public Schools, calling for an end to bilingual
education, and alleging inadequate bilingual instruction, discrimination
against Latino students on the basis of national origin and the labeling
of non-Latino students as Latino to get more state funding.
The plaintiffs are being funded by the Center
for Equal Opportunity, a nonprofit public policy organization in Washington
led by Linda Chavez, who believes native-language instruction has been
a failure everywhere it has been tried.
Because of that position, the litigants are
being called vendidos, or sellouts, by other Latinos--some of them former
friends--who regard the lawsuit as an attack on their ethnic heritage.
"We would have worked with ideologues
from the left had they stepped forward to help us," said Vivian Doak,
whose sons, 9-year-old Matthew and 12-year-old George, are plaintiffs in
A local grass-roots group that once counted
Doak as a valuable member, New Mexico Vecinos United, has launched a letter-writing
campaign to discredit the lawsuit, its intent and its backers.
Deciding to take that action was not easy.
Andres Valdez, a spokesman for Vecinos United (United Neighbors), fought
side by side with Doak in earlier battles against alleged police brutality
and unfair utility rates in some of Albuquerque's poorest neighborhoods.
"But we think they are promoting a racist
effort to destroy our language and culture," Valdez said. "We
will not stand for that."
Doak, who years ago agreed to allow her sons to be part of the program,
believes it is too late to turn back. Her younger son spends an hour each
day alone and unsupervised in his Mountain View Elementary School library
because he opted out of bilingual programs that after three years extended
his command of Spanish to this: Buenos dias. Buenas tardes. Senora.
The freckle-faced Anglo boy and his parents
insist he should never have been placed in the bilingual program. Their
lawsuit alleges the district illegally pads its bilingual education program
with non-Latinos to get more state funding.
School officials deny that. But they conceded
it may have been a mistake to have the Doak brothers in the bilingual program
that serves an impoverished, mostly Latino district. They also acknowledged
the district was not prepared to accommodate a student who wanted out of
A few weeks ago, Doak's older boy was punched
in the eye after his teacher initiated a classroom discussion about his
lawsuit. The talk became contentious when another student took exception
to his criticism of a "cultural enrichment" lesson that featured
class time set aside to make tacos.
"Making tacos didn't seem to have anything
to do with learning Spanish, especially since the teacher talked about
tacos in English," George said. "But the kid who hit me loved
tacos and said I was trying to ruin his fun."
The Doaks are seeking a restraining order
that would ban all school discussions about the suit on grounds such debates
could jeopardize their safety.
Virginia Duran Ginn, supervisor of Albuquerque
Public Schools' bilingual programs, conceded "there are bound to be
human errors. . . . We do need lots of help in recruiting qualified bilingual
teachers and getting more funding for resources. But I will continue to
fight for bilingual education because it makes common sense. Should children
be taught in a language they understand, or a language they don't understand?"
"But my teachers don't even know how
to speak Spanish," Lizet said. "It's sad that people are focused
on the politics of this situation. They should be helping us with reading,
writing and mathematics."