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Bilingual Education Is A Human and Civil Right

 
  -photo: Jean-Claude Lejeune

A Rethinking Schools editorial

Winter 2002/2003

En Español

In 1864, Congress prohibited Native-American children from being taught in their own languages. It took the U.S. government 70 years to overturn that law. Now they're at it again. The federal government and the states have taken steps toward banning bilingual education in several states and weakening it in virtually every state. We hope it won't take another 70 years to restore students' right to learn their own languages in school.

Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz has spearheaded four statewide ballot initiatives to ban bilingual education. Three of these have won and resulted in anti-child policies in California (1998), Arizona (2000), and now Massachusetts (2002). In this latest election in Massachusetts, 70 percent of the voters approved the "English for the Children" initiative, which will take bilingual education away from children who need it. (Ironically, Massachusetts was the first state in the nation to legislatively support bilingual education some 31 years ago.)

In Colorado, voters defeated a similar measure (56 percent to 44 percent) this past November, thanks to the hard work of bilingual education activists such as members of English Plus and the financial support of Pat Stryker, a wealthy parent whose child attends a two-way bilingual program in Fort Collins. But such state referenda are just the tip of the iceberg. The federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) includes significant anti-bilingual components that threaten bilingual students in all states.

The ESEA requires English Language Learners to take standardized tests in English within three years of entering the U.S. school system - not enough time to gain academic English proficiency. This time crunch forces many bilingual schools to restructure their programs and emphasize English over native-language instruction. The mean-spirited way many states have decided to implement these assessment regimes makes them partners in the federal government's attack on bilingual education. (See www.rethinkingschools.org for background articles.)

James Crawford, one of the nation's best-known writers on bilingual education, wrote in the Summer 2002 issue of Rethinking Schools that the ESEA was an "Obituary for the Bilingual Education Act of 1968." He explained that a provision of the ESEA eliminated the Bilingual Education Act and replaced it with the English Language Acquisition Act. Where the former stressed language development in both English and students' native languages and promoted equal access to the curriculum, the latter expects schools to focus on English only. And if these attacks weren't enough, "English Only" groups continue to organize to have cities, counties, and states proclaim English as their "official language." Such proposals build on public anti-immigrant sentiment and lead to divisive and unnecessary conflicts.

XENOPHOBIC POLICIES

It's no coincidence that all of this is occurring during the largest wave of non-English speaking immigrants in the history of the United States. The current xenophobic policies in our schools and communities are the newest chapter in a long, predictable book. (Previous chapters included, among other embarrassments, the outlawing of Native-American languages in schools in 1864 and a rash of shutting down German bilingual education programs in the Midwest during a surge of "nativism" around the time of World War I.)

Many mark the beginning of this new anti-immigrant organizing with the 1994 passage of California's Proposition 187, which made it illegal for children of undocumented immigrants to attend public schools. (Fortunately the Federal Courts ruled this law unconstitutional.) And Unz has since successfully dismantled bilingual ed in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts. Bush took the same side, using federal legislation to weaken bilingual education in those states that Unz has not yet conquered.

A HUMAN AND CIVIL RIGHT

The current attack on bilingual education denies children a basic human and civil right - the right to learn in their native language. Article 29 of the Convention on the Rights of a Child adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1989 (and ratified by all nations except the United States and Somalia) states that "the education of the child should be directed to ... the development of respect for the child's parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values." Article 30 states that "a child belonging to an [ethnic, religious, or linguistic minority] should not be denied the right ... to use his or her own language."

In 1998 the Linguistic Society of America also affirmed this basic human right. It passed a resolution supporting the right of all residents of the United States "to have their children educated in a manner that affirmatively acknowledges their native language abilities as well as ensures their acquisition of English."

Not only is the right to learn in one's native language a human right, it is a civil right as well. In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Lau vs. Nichols that California schools without special provisions to educate language minority students were violating the students' civil rights. This decision gave impetus to the bilingual education movement.

In our minds, the civil right to an equal opportunity in education is clearly violated when children are denied an education that is comprehensible. If students are placed in "English immersion" classes, large chunks of the curriculum will be incomprehensible. This violates a basic civil right to equal treatment under the law.

We are disturbed by the way voters are manipulated by money and disinformation to vote for policies that harm children, but it's difficult to hold individual voters accountable for their actions. However, elected officials who voted for the ESEA can and should be held accountable for their actions.

Any hope of overturning the current anti-bilingual policies begins with students, families, and educators. We need to show state and federal legislators how their discriminatory policies affect children and force them to change their positions before the ESEA comes up for reauthorization six years from now.

As educators who believe in social justice we think it is important to fight for everyone's human and civil rights. Ultimately, we believe that all children should have the right to learn at least two languages, including their mother tongue. Throughout the world children become bilingual or multilingual and it is valued. We call upon everyone who believes in bilingual education to testify, organize, and demand that our childrens' rights be restored and protected.

Winter 2002/2003