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Bilingual Education And Latino Civil Rights

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Bilingual Education and Latino Civil Rights

While the population of language minority children in the nation makes up a substantial part of the student population, and continues to grow, their educational civil rights have come under increasing scrutiny and attack over the past decade. All students have the right to be provided access to content area knowledge. Bilingual education, or teaching through the native language, has been an important technique for providing that right to English language learners. However, the use of this educational technique has been increasingly criticized and eroded over the past ten years. To look at this broad issue, I will examine the history of civil rights for language minority children, the assumptions behind the attack on bilingual education, and suggest responses to safeguard the rights of language minority students.

The number of English language learning (ELL) students in the U.S. has grown dramatically in the last decade. According to a 1991 national study, there are over 2,300,000 students in grades K through 12 who are English language learners (August & Hakuta, 1997). This number has grown by over 1,000,000 since 1984. The majority of these students are Spanish-speakers (73%), followed by Vietnamese-speakers (3.9%). Because the overwhelming proportions of ELL students are Spanish speakers, the issue of bilingual education is largely a Latino one. No other language group makes up more than 4% of limited English proficient students. What complicates the issue of education for language minority students is their low socioeconomic status. 80% of ELL students are poor, and most attend schools where the majority of students also live in poverty and are English language learners. There is some difference in the level of poverty among language groups. Here, again, Latinos are disproportionately represented: 57% of Spanish-speaking families earn less than $20,000 compared to, for example, only 35% of families where Asian/Pacific Island languages are spoken (McArthur, 1993). Poverty has many implications for educational achievement, for example, parents' educational attainment mirror income levels, and parents' educational achievement is highly linked to that of their children's.

Despite the high number of ELL students, it is difficult to know, because of lack of data to see what type of educational programs they participate in. According to Prospects, a 1995 national survey, reading and math were taught in programs using bilingual education in less than half of first and third grade classrooms serving limited English proficient students. Offered more frequently were programs where instruction was offered only in English, or where instructional aides, not teachers, were the vehicles for native language instruction. Conclusions about participation rates in different programs vary; another study suggests that 33% of ELL students nationwide are enrolled in ESL or immersion programs, while 57% receive some native language instruction, from either a teacher or an instructional aide (Fleischman, & Hopstock, 1993).

More is known about program availability in California than nationwide. While doubt over what makes up bilingual education also exists at the state level, it appears that less than a third of California's ELL children receive bilingual education, therefore somewhat less than nationwide. Of these, the overwhelming majorities, over 95% are Latino. The other 70% of ELL students not participating in bilingual education are in English only programs. Some of these programs use the method "Specially Designed Academic Instruction in English", so as to make content more understandable to students. Others offer only English language development, or a combination of the two programs. Some programs also offer informal support in the native language. However, more than one in five (21%) ELL students in English only programs receive no special services at all, despite state and federal law stipulating that some program must be in place. This brought a concern to my head, that students without the help are stuck in a circle with no one to help. "It appears that Hispanics will continue to dominate the rolls of the limited-English-proficient in classrooms of the twenty-first century" (Carger 8).

Bilingual education is a legacy of the "Great Society" programs of the 1960s. During that time, in a symbol to the Latino community, which had been largely overlooked by past civil rights legislation, Congress passed the 1968 Bilingual Education Act, or Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Act. Title VII provided a financial reason for school districts to apply bilingual education. While the Act seemed by many as largely symbolic because of its low level of funding, it did serve to highlight the primacy of native language instruction as a means of giving voice and access to a largely ignored community of students. I paid attention that by supporting the use of bilingual education; Title VII defined students' educational civil rights as the right to learn content matter as well as the right to learn English. Also, by funding only bilingual education programs, Title VII defined native language instruction as the preferred technique for limited English proficient students. Additionally, by arguing for the importance of bilingualism to national security and economic competitiveness, Title VII is the closest that the United States has come to defining a national language policy.

While California continues to have some of the strictest laws protecting educational rights for English language learners, in the last decade those laws have come under increasing attack. Critics have focused on the state's choice of bilingual education as the best technique to fulfill those rights. While bilingual education puts attention to students' right to learn content knowledge, society tends to focus almost only on the importance of learning English and therefore support instruction only in English. Critics of bilingual education have used multiple strategies to undermine native language instruction, including politics, legislation, and ballot ideas.

The first major attack against California's bilingual education laws occurred in 1987, when governor Deukmejian allowed the Chacon-Moscone Bilingual Bicultural Law to sunset. Despite the fact that the requirements of the law technically remain in effect, the governor's failure to support the law weakened the legislative mandate for bilingual education that had previously existed in California. Since the sunset of the Chacon-Moscone Bilingual Bicultural Law California legislature has failed to pass a new bilingual education bill.

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