Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Viva Bilingual Ed

By Lisa Tozzi

JUNE 15, 1998:  Molly Ivins has often observed that Texas should function as a "National Laboratory for Bad Government." We'd take all the really horrible ideas, try them out here, and spare everyone else the mess involved in figuring out they just don't work. But last week that other bellwether, California, gave Texas a run for the title, as failing confidence in the state's public school system and frustration with booming immigration culminated in the virtual decimation of the nation's largest bilingual instruction program. Will California's Proposition 227 inspire a similar campaign in Texas? So far, the Lone Star state's bilingual education program, while far from perfect, appears safe, despite crowing from Silicon Valley multimillionaire Ron Unz - who instigated the California drive - that the initiative marked the "beginning of the end" of bilingual education in the United States.

"There are a lot of differences between California and Texas," said Robert Milk, director of bicultural and bilingual studies at UT-San Antonio. And those differences explain why Texans continue to support bilingual education. California not only has twice as many non-native speaking students, it also has a more diverse population. Milk noted that while Latinos are the state's largest immigrant group, California's system has nearly as many students speaking Chinese, Vietnamese, and other languages - all of which contribute to the complexity of California's system. Texas has the nation's second largest bilingual studies program, with about 450,000 students who are not proficient in English, but the program is simplified by the fact that 90% of the students with limited English proficiency are native Spanish speakers.

In California, a variety of political factors also made bilingual education a target. For years, California voters have watched their once world-class public school system dissolve into one of the nation's worst, and have faced - kicking and screaming - the realization that the state will soon be a majority minority population. Several recent ballot initiatives have exploited that voter anxiety: In 1994, Prop. 187 eliminated state services to illegal immigrants, including access to public schools (a legal challenge to this measure is pending). In 1996, Prop. 209 ended state-supported affirmative action, and Prop. 227's passage was a chance to strike another blow to immigrants and for the first time use a ballot initiative to determine public school curriculum.

Critics of bilingual education argued that many non-native English speakers were leaving California's schools with poor reading skills in both English and their native language. So they proposed that, instead of learning subjects like science, math, and history in their own language while learning English, the state's 1.4 million students with limited English proficiency should be enrolled in an intensive one-year "immersion" program before being transferred into regular classes. Their argument obviously struck a nerve with state residents, who overwhelmingly approved Prop. 227 in the June 2 election, despite opposition from President Clinton, all four candidates for California governor, and many of the state's education experts and Hispanic rights organizations.


Students Christian Gonzalez, Ramiro Martinez, and teacher Sylvia Saenz at Sanchez Elementary's bilingual education classes.
photograph by Jana Birchum

Make no mistake, California's bilingual program was in need of reform - even its staunchest supporters admit that. But scrapping the existing program in favor of one that ignores the fact that it takes more than a year or two to grow proficient in a second language, will ultimately harm the children dependent on California's bilingual programs, education experts warn. Bilingual education advocates fear that this initiative will galvanize the English-only movement elsewhere in the United States - not to mention cost California taxpayers millions of dollars, create chaos in the schools, and leave many of the state's children floundering without the skills to keep up with their English-speaking classmates.


Safety Net

Here in the Lone Star state, a measure similar to Prop. 227 would have to be introduced in the Legislature, which Texas educators say is a cushion - albeit a thin one - against a narrow special-interest campaign, or a millionaire Unz-backed media blitz. Even with some Texas legislators' zeal for school vouchers and other questionable school-reform initiatives, there does not seem to be any mounting criticism against bilingual education in the halls of the state Capitol.

While an "English only" campaign has complicated the issue in California and at the national level, Milk, of UT-San Antonio, said most Texas legislators have steered clear of the controversy - perhaps recognizing that a bilingual workforce gives the state an economic advantage. "In Texas there has been an effort to position the state as a leader in relations with Latin America and Mexico to capitalize on the global economy," said Milk. "Even those who in a different era might have played the race card on immigration or bilingual education don't seem all too interested in that."

In addition to demographic and political factors, there are several other differences between Texas and California's bilingual programs, said Joey Lozano of the Texas Education Association (TEA). For one thing, Texas has in place "several strong accountability measures" that California's program seemed to lack, Lozano said. In Texas, school districts' programs undergo regular scrutiny from the TEA to ensure student achievement in both English and their core subjects. Students in the bilingual program, for example, must pass the TAAS test, although they may obtain an exemption for two years.

Students in grades three and four can take the test in Spanish - and that option will be available to fifth and sixth graders in 1999. High school students, on the other hand, must pass the 10th grade TAAS in English before they can graduate. In addition to TAAS, Lozano said, district bilingual programs are regularly evaluated by the TEA, which monitors about 100 districts a year. "There was a significant portion of [California] bilingual educators who felt there were problems with that state's programs," said Lozano. "That's something we don't see here. We're not hearing that outcry from bilingual educators."


Bilingual Ed's Start

State and federal laws mandating bilingual education requirements sprang up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when services for limited-English speakers were virtually nonexistent. Before then, children with limited English skills were thrown into a sink-or-swim environment, sometimes punished, ridiculed, or placed in special education. But bilingual education advocates successfully argued that if schools were not teaching students in their native language, students were being cheated of their constitutional right to an education. In response, districts with 20 or more children speaking a foreign language had to provide non-English-speaking students core subjects in their native language while they were learning English.

No one would argue against the importance of English proficiency, but much of the credible research into bilingual education and second-language learning suggests that retaining proficiency in one's native language is an asset. Austin's bilingual education program, in place since 1969, aims to develop children's cognitive skills while they are learning the second language. That, educators say, helps most children make the transition to mainstream programs and improves their success once they do enter English-only classes. "Bilingual education is a means to an end," said Della May Moore, AISD's bilingual education director. "If we waited until students learned English, we'd lose a lot of instruction time." Students with limited English skills can move to mainstream classes taught in English at any time and only take English as a Second Language classes if a parent wishes. Moore said about 1,500 of the district's 13,466 students with limited English skills take that option.

"Bilingual education is about using a child's native language and existing skills, instead of saying, 'This five-year-old is like Wolf Boy with no language skills whatsoever,'" said former bilingual teacher Louis Malfaro, now president of Austin Federation of Teachers. "When you talk to people who went to school 30 years ago, they tell you stories of how they were hit or punished for speaking Spanish. 'Sink-or-swim' worked for some," Malfaro said, but he adds that over the long run, research shows bilingual kids perform better academically than those who are thrown into English-only programs. "One year of English is not necessarily enough to successfully make the step to reading and writing," Malfaro said.

Austin residents generally see the cultural and economic value of fluency in two or more languages, and have supported programs encouraging and developing those language skills, says AISD's Moore. That theory is borne out in the inclusion of $1.1 million in AISD's proposed 1998-99 budget for an elementary school foreign language program - to begin teaching all students Spanish as early as kindergarten. But despite the apparent enthusiasm for bilingual programs, many of AISD's bilingual teachers say Austin's program suffers from a lack of certified teachers and a shortage of teaching materials. Last year, four elementary schools did not have a bilingual teacher on staff, which means that students had to transfer to another school to receive this service. The outlook for the fall doesn't look too promising, either - the district estimates it has at least 30 vacancies for certified bilingual teachers. This lack of certified bilingual teachers and quality materials threatens to negatively impact even the best-planned and popular programs, said Nellie Vela, a bilingual teacher at Maplewood Elementary.


The National Mood

Of course, not all Texans see the value of bilingual education. U.S. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Sugarland) recently introduced a bill that would repeal the Bilingual Education Act, cut the roughly $200 million distributed nationally each year for bilingual education, and dissolve the Department of Education's office of bilingual education. DeLay is not alone in his efforts in the House of Representatives. Last Thursday, a U.S. House committee on education approved a bill - sponsored by California Republican Rep. Frank Riggs - which curbs federal funding and prohibits schools from keeping any student in a federally funded bilingual program for more than three years. Though federal funding makes up a very small piece of most districts' budget pie, these bills - such as Prop. 227 - represent a real threat to bilingual educators.

In Austin, only $400,000 of the district's $27 million budget for bilingual ed comes from federal money, but the cuts would impact such programs as a teacher-training arrangement at Fulmore Middle School that is attempting to address one of the major dilemmas of bilingual education throughout the state - the shortage of certified teachers. The Texas Association of Bilingual Educators and local education advocates have urged the state to offer stipends, loan-payback programs, or other financial incentives for teachers who make the commitment to bilingual education. In Austin, the teachers' unions and bilingual teachers are urging AISD officials and the Board of Trustees to reinstate an annual stipend for certified bilingual teachers, which was cut from AISD's budget about six years ago. Ruben Valdez, past president of the Austin Association of Teachers, said school districts like San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, and El Paso offer bilingual teachers stipends of up to $3,000 as a reward for the extra time and energy demanded of them. Currently, Austin offers a $1,500 "signing bonus" to new hires who agree to teach bilingual programs. In addition, the district is considering offering a bonus to bilingual teachers who are currently teaching mainstream classes to encourage them to teach bilingual classes.

But Valdez said that over the long term, stipends are the most effective way to keep teachers in Austin. "We're talking about a special-needs population that does not have enough teachers to serve them," said Valdez. "It's not the program that ultimately suffers, it is the students who suffer."


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