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Executive Summary #1206es on Education

July 22, 1998

July 22, 1998 | Executive Summary on Education

BG1206es:  How Congress Can Help Limited English-ProficientStudents to Learn English

The House soon will consider the appropriations bill for the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services, which includes appropriations for the Department of Education, as well as Representative Frank Riggs's (R-CA) English Language Fluency Act (H.R. 3892). Both efforts offer important opportunities to make reforms in the federal government's badly flawed bilingual education program. This year's appropriation for the Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs (OBEMLA) at the Department of Education contains several measures designed to strengthen the education offered to Limited English Proficient (LEP) students. Although appropriators make no changes to the funding level for OBEMLA, they take several steps toward giving states greater flexibility in designing bilingual education programs and moving students out of bilingual education and into normal classrooms within two years.

The English Language Fluency Act introduces even more dramatic reforms to the government's bilingual education program. This bill would:

  • Block grant all current federal funding for bilingual and immigrant education to states, giving them more flexibility to develop ways to help their LEP students to make the transition to English language fluency.

  • Allow local education agencies (LEAs) to select which method of English language instruction to use while allowing parents the freedom to choose the program that best suits their children's needs.

  • Provide bonuses to those LEAs that teach English fluency in a shorter period of time.

  • Rein in the powers of the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR).

Both the Riggs bill and the appropriations reforms address an issue that has been neglected for too long. There are approximately 2.8 million LEP students in the United States, and the U.S. Bureau of the Census estimates that 88 percent of the increase in the child population between 2000 and 2050 will be children of new immigrants.

Tragically, the current system is failing to teach LEP students the English language skills they will need to perform well in school. English language learners, when compared with their English-fluent peers, tend to receive lower grades, are judged by their teachers to have weaker academic abilities, and often score below the average on standardized math and reading exams. Parents of LEP students, moreover, recognize the failure of certain schools to help their children master the tools for success. An August 1996 survey of Hispanic parents, for example, found that 63 percent thought that "Hispanic students should be taught English as soon as possible, while less than seventeen percent thought they should learn Spanish first."

Meanwhile, the Department of Education and its Office of Civil Rights continue to promote one method--transitional bilingual education--as the best means by which to provide "equal education" to LEP students. Even a cursory evaluation of the evidence reveals that their position is not supported by solid research or clear legal opinions.

The U.S. Supreme Court's 1974 decision in Lau v. Nichols was the first legal precedent requiring schools to help LEP students to understand the curriculum. In Lau, the Supreme Court ruled that "identical education" did not translate into "equal education" when dealing with LEP students. Although some education authorities took this ruling to mandate native language instruction, the Supreme Court's wording in no way suggests this is the only option--or even the best option--in educating LEP students. The wording in Lau v. Nichols clearly allows options for English language instruction, including English as a Second Language. A later decision in the Fifth Federal Court of Appeals, Castaneda v. Pickard, requires schools to make students proficient in English as they progressed in the overall academic curriculum. Again, the decision makes clear that school systems are free to pursue this aim in any way they think appropriate.

Yet the Department of Education (and especially its Office of Civil Rights) persist in their efforts to force schools to employ the method of bilingual education Washington prefers. The OCR has assembled regulations, called the Lau remedies, that were sent to every school district in the United States that receives federal funding. The regulations essentially say that if a school has 15 students who speak a single language, the school must offer instruction to those students in their native language. At the same time, the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (in 1994) capped the use of Title VII federal funding for programs other than bilingual education at 25 percent.

In addition to offering school districts financial incentives to use certain bilingual education methods, the Department of Education wields considerable legal power over a school district's implementation of bilingual education through the OCR. When the OCR conducts compliance reviews, it often determines a school's exit criteria (standards by which a district determines a student ready to leave the program), staffing requirements, and program effectiveness. If the OCR does not approve of the school district's program design (and research shows that it almost never does), it can demand that the school accept OCR proposals or lose federal funding and possibly face prosecution by the Department of Justice.

It is time for the federal government to allow local districts and parents to educate Limited English Proficient students free from unnecessary intervention. A good education is the cornerstone of success in the path to the American dream. Without the English language skills to succeed in school and in later life, this path is closed. Reforms currently under consideration give Congress the chance to improve substantially the federal government's program to help these children.

-- Nina H. Shokraii is  former Education Policy Analyst at The Heritage Foundation.

-- Sarah E. Youssef is a former Research Assistant at The Heritage Foundation.

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