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"Babel" in the Schools

"...there are over 80 languages taught in the California schools as the primary language, not as the secondary language but as the primary language, in a country where in Seattle there are 75 languages being taught, in Chicago there are 100."
– House Speaker Newt Gingrich

American schools are linguistically diverse and becoming more so each year. No question about that. But there is no basis to assume that schools are accommodating them all with bilingual education. Only a minority of limited-English-proficient (LEP) students receive instruction in their native languages, for various reasons. Often there are not enough children from the same language group in a school to make bilingual instruction practical. But in any case, a shortage of qualified bilingual teachers usually makes it impossible. For example, public schools in California enrolled recently arrived immigrants from 136 different countries in 1994, but bilingual teachers were certified in only 17 languages – 96 percent of them in Spanish. To the extent that LEP children received help in other tongues, they received it almost entirely from teacher aides.

"... much has been said this morning about education and wasting of money. We spend some $12 billion a year in this country, $12 billion a year on bilingual education, which means we teach kids in other than the English language."
– Rep. Toby Roth (R-Wisc.)

This claim, widely circulated by U.S. English, was calculated by multiplying the nation's average per pupil expenditure by the estimated number of LEP students in the United States. It is erroneous and misleading, for three reasons.

  • The federal government's spending in this area has declined over the past two decades, while the LEP student population was growing dramatically. The FY1996 budget for Bilingual Education Act programs was $128 million, a reduction of more than 51 percent from the FY1980 level of $262.4 million.<1>
  • Only a minority of LEP children are enrolled in bilingual education programs nationwide. An unfortunate lack of data makes it impossible to say exactly how many. But in California, the one state that does gather comprehensive enrollment data, fewer than 30 percent of LEP students received the full bilingual "treatment" in 1994-95 – that is, academic instruction in their native language as well as in English, plus English-as-a-second-language instruction. And of these students, only about half were taught by certified bilingual and ESL teachers.<2>
  • The relevant issue here is marginal cost: the expense of bilingual education versus that of other pedagogical models for LEP students. Research on this question, while limited, shows that staffing classrooms with bilingual teachers costs far less than "pullout ESL" – removing children from regular classrooms for English instruction – because the latter requires a corps of supplementary teachers.<3>

$12 billion sounds like a lot of money. Obviously the figure was concocted to outrage the public about the "waste" of taxpayer dollars on bilingual education. But if that were the true cost, it would be a bargain. It would mean bilingual programs cost no more than "sink or swim" approaches, while delivering far more effective instruction.

1. 1996 dollars, adjusted for inflation.

2. Educational Demographics Unit. Language Census Report for California Public Schools: 1995. Sacramento: California State Department of Education, 1995.

3. Jay Chambers and Tom Parrish, Meeting the Challenge of Diversity: An Evaluation of Programs for Pupils with Limited Proficiency in English, vol. IV, Cost of Programs and Services for LEP Students. Berkeley, Calif.: BW Associates, 1992.

Copyright © 1997 by James Crawford. Permission is hereby granted to reproduce this page for free, noncommercial distribution, provided that credit is given and this notice is included.Requests for permission to reproduce in any other form should be emailed to this address. But before writing, please read my permissions FAQ