Washington PostThursday, August 9, 2001
MONDAY'S DATA from the Census Bureau should sharpen the debate on bilingual education. The bureau reported that immigrants make up 11 percent of the U.S. population, the biggest share since the 1930s. This influx is a source of economic and cultural energy but also a potential source of social strain; the net effect depends on how successfully the immigrants blend into the mainstream and share in the nation's upward mobility. But the bureau also reported that nearly one in five Americans do not speak English at home. Among Spanish speakers, only half the adults described themselves as speaking English well. Ensuring that the children of these families are equipped with fluent English should be a national priority.
Unfortunately, the bilingual education offered in most parts of the country does not promote English fluency. The Census Bureau reports that only two-thirds of school-age children in Spanish-speaking homes describe themselves as speaking English very well. This is a shamefully low number: Children pick up languages with relative ease, and the school system ought to be able to deliver near universal fluency. But bilingual programs often involve teaching mainly in Spanish, with rather desultory efforts to teach English as a second language on the side. Though empirical studies deliver a mixed verdict on this question, it seems likely that students would learn more English if they were immersed in it.
A ballot initiative in California did away with bilingual education in 1998, and Arizona followed two years later. The early evidence from California is encouraging. In last year's standardized tests, second-graders classified as having limited English greatly improved their scores in both reading and math. This success has encouraged the proponents of immersion to organize further initiative campaigns in Colorado and Massachusetts. Oregon and Nevada are two other possible targets.
These promising state experiments should be coupled with support from the federal government. The most plausible argument for bilingual education is not that the method has worked but that it has failed for lack of resources. Poor schools, they say, fall short in almost everything they do; if they embrace immersion teaching, they may fail at that also. Fortunately, the education bill in the Senate authorizes a quadrupling of spending on children with limited English. The House bill, meanwhile, usefully pushes states to set a three-year target for moving students out of special programs into mainstream classes. Until now students have been allowed to spend years in bilingual programs, turning them into a trap rather than a steppingstone.
Given the president's interest in education and in policy toward Mexican immigrants, the administration ought to take a strong stance on this issue. Mr. Bush should lobby the House-Senate conference committee to retain the Senate's extra money and the House's time limits. He should follow up with some cheerleading for the cause of English teaching. Immersion classes may not be a silver-bullet solution. But the status quo is not acceptable.