President Bush is making a big play for Hispanics, even at the risk of offending some members of his conservative base. So far, the president has signaled that he may be open to a limited or 'earned' amnesty for some illegal aliens, infuriating many on the right. And two weeks ago, the Bush Justice Department filed a brief supporting a racial preference program that benefited a Hispanic government contractor in a Colorado case before the U.S. Supreme Court, which disappointed many conservatives, including me. But the president may be missing the boat on the one issue that could not only win him added support and respect within some segments of the Hispanic community but would be widely praised by conservatives as well. It's time President Bush jumps aboard and supports English immersion for Hispanic immigrant children.
I know this sounds counterintuitive. The reason some Hispanic children still aren't learning English in many states -- including Texas, New York and Illinois -- is that a powerful, Hispanic-led bilingual education lobby blocks any attempt to include more English instruction in the curriculum for Hispanic immigrants. But Hispanic parents have started to revolt, first in California, then Arizona, and now in Colorado and Massachusetts, sponsoring statewide ballot initiatives to replace failed bilingual programs with English immersion programs.
Unfortunately, neither President Bush nor other leaders in the Republican Party have been willing take the side of the parents against the bilingual lobby -- out to protect their jobs, not help children. In California and Arizona, which passed the initiatives in 1998 and 2000, most Republican elected officials opposed the measures, which nonetheless won overwhelming support from voters. I predict the same will happen in Colorado and Massachusetts next year.
Meanwhile, the evidence continues to mount that English immersion works. This week, California released the results of its statewide standardized tests. For the third year in a row, English learners -- the term the state now uses to describe children who enter school with limited proficiency in English -- improved their scores at a higher rate than their peers. Statewide, second-grade English learners improved their reading and math scores 3 points each and their language scores by 2 points over last year, posting a 63 percent increase in reading and math scores since English immersion was introduced in 1998, and a 58 percent increase in language scores.
So what are Republicans afraid of? As then-Governor Bush told me a few years ago when I met privately with him in Austin, Texas, he didn't want to be tarred with the "English Only" label. He is for "English Plus," he said, adopting the phrase some bilingual education advocates coined a few years ago. The problem is, those same bilingual proponents insist on teaching Hispanic youngsters primarily in Spanish, which makes the phrase meaningless propaganda.
President Bush won't necessarily hear it from Hispanic leaders, but Hispanic parents -- especially immigrants -- want their children to learn English as quickly as possible. When my Center for Equal Opportunity (CEO) polled Hispanic parents on this issue a few years ago -- 83 percent of whom spoke Spanish as their primary language -- only 12 percent favored having their children taught their academic subject in Spanish if it meant less time learning English. A whopping 81 percent wanted their children to be taught entirely in English.
The president ought to listen to these Hispanics, not the National Association for Bilingual Education, which has a vested interest in preserving Spanish language programs to boost its organization coffers.
The president could begin by instructing his Department of Education to assist local school districts in implementing English immersion programs immediately. There is a dearth of material available on how to establish an effective instructional program (CEO has published one of the only guides available, "The ABC's of English Immersion," (available on our Web site at www. ceousa.org), and the Education Department could help fill the gap.
Most importantly, he could use the bully pulpit to promote teaching English by talking about it every time he discusses education. Why, he might even consider devoting one of his weekly radio addresses to the topic. And this is one radio address even conservatives could agree he ought to deliver in Spanish, too.