If you've ever wondered why Americans are so skeptical of Congress' ability to solve problems, the strange history of bilingual education provides a perfect case history. In 1968, Congress approved $7.5 million for the first federal bilingual education program to help Mexican-American children in the Southwest learn English. The program was supposed to be temporary, and it was designed to teach English to children in the program within three years. Thirty-three years later, Congress has bumped up the spending authorization on the program nearly 100-fold to $750 million next year. And the Senate version of pending legislation would increase spending authorization to $2.8 billion by 2008. Meanwhile, the program itself has failed to teach English to the children enrolled, so that they now languish in special bilingual classes for five, seven, even eight years or longer.
But parents and taxpayers have begun to revolt. In California and Arizona, voters vetoed bilingual education in favor of English immersion programs with statewide ballot initiatives in 1998 and 2000. And now Colorado voters may have the same opportunity in 2002, thanks largely to the generosity and organizational skills of Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, who funded the California and Arizona efforts as well.
Unz and a group of Colorado parents recently announced the formation of "English for the Children," a campaign to gather enough signatures to put an anti-bilingual initiative on the ballot next year. A similar effort by many of the same parents and Hispanic activists last year, in which I was involved, was derailed by the Colorado Supreme Court. Although supporters of the initiative had already gathered two-thirds of the signatures needed, the Court dismissed as prejudicial ballot language that said English should be taught "as rapidly and effectively as possible." Unz may well run into the same problem this year, but with better funding and a longer lead time to rewrite his initiative if it fails to pass court muster, his chances of success are considerably better.
No doubt opponents of the initiative will claim it is anti-Hispanic, a charge they made in California and Arizona as well. But the real damage to Hispanics has come from bilingual education itself. Just ask Rita Montero, a former member of the Denver school board who is helping lead the effort to replace bilingual education with English immersion. Montero, a one-time bilingual supporter, became disillusioned with the program when her son was placed in a bilingual classroom in first grade. The school put him in the program because Montero answered a survey required of all Hispanic parents, which asked whether a language other than English is ever used in the home. Although Montero and her son are both fully fluent in English, the family occasionally spoke Spanish as well, so the school placed her son in the bilingual program.
At first, she thought the bilingual program might give her son the opportunity to learn both languages. Instead, she found that the program taught neither language well, and she worried her son would fall behind in school. But when she requested that he be removed from the bilingual classroom, the school refused. She had to remove him from the school altogether in order to have him placed in a regular classroom.
Stories like Montero's occur by the thousands, which is why the Unz initiatives have proved so popular with Hispanic parents themselves. In every state where the initiative has made it on the ballot, the effort has been led by local Hispanic parents, teachers and community activists.
So why hasn't Congress gotten the message? Instead of listening to parents whose children are actually subjected to bilingual programs that deny them the opportunity to learn English, Congress does the bidding of the bilingual education lobby. It's a typical story: When a program fails to achieve what it promises, increase the money. The worse the failure, the more money Congress pours into it. And unfortunately, the pattern hasn't changed with Republicans in control.