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The Conservative Curmudgeon
July 28, 2009

Supreme Court: Teaching in English Benefits Immigrants
by Allan C. Brownfeld

ALEXANDRIA, VA — In the case of Horne v. Flores, decided in June, the U.S. Supreme Court moved us further away from the philosophy of bilingual education, the theory in which immigrant children are segregated by language and taught largely in their native language — while learning English on the side.

The 5-4 decision, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., involved Arizona’s Nogales Unified School District. In l992, some students and parents in the district sued the state, claiming that it was not taking “appropriate action” to overcome barriers for English-language learners (ELLs). The state responded by implementing a program of Structured English Immersion (SEI).

The Supreme Court concluded: “Research on ELL instruction indicates there is documented academic support for the view that SEI is significantly more effective than bilingual education. Findings of the Arizona Department of Education in 2004 strongly support this conclusion.”

The Court also concluded that a lower court had failed to adequately consider whether the Nogales school district’s implementation of SEI was a “changed circumstance” warranting release from the initial court order.

Numbers recently released by the Arizona Department of Education estimate that 40,000 students — or 29 percent — enrolled in English Immersion classes passed the English fluency exam and will transition into mainstream. In Massachusetts, English immersion programs have also proven highly successful. The Boston Globe (June 7, 2009) reported on that state’s top-performing high school graduates — the valedictorians — including a boy from Haiti who arrived in Boston four years ago without knowing a word of English. The paper reported that Edner Paul not only led his school but won a four-year scholarship to M.I.T. According to The Globe, immigrant students were class valedictorians in l7 of the 42 high schools in Boston — and most arrived a few years ago barely knowing English.

Bilingual education has always been a bad idea. Professor Seymour Martin Lipset noted more than 20 years ago, at the height of the push for such programs, that, “The history of bilingual and bicultural societies that do not assimilate are histories of turmoil, tension, and tragedy. Canada, Belgium, Malaysia, Lebanon — all face crises of national existence in which minorities press for autonomy, if not independence. Pakistan and Cyprus have divided. Nigeria suppressed an ethnic rebellion. France faces difficulties with its Basques, Bretons, and Corsicans.”

American public schools once served to bring children of immigrants into the mainstream. Fotine Z. Nicholas, who taught for 30 years in New York City schools and wrote an education column for a Greek-American weekly, notes, “I recall with nostalgia the way things used to be. At P.S. 82 in Manhattan, 90 percent of our students had European-born parents. Our teachers were mostly of Irish origin, and they tried hard to homogenize us. We might refer to ourselves as Czech, Hungarian, or Greek, but we developed a sense of pride in being American.... There were two unifying factors: the attitude of our teachers and the English-language.... After we started school, we spoke only English to our siblings, our classmates, and our friends. We studied and wrote in English, we played in English, we thought in English.”

Discussing recent bilingual education programs, Mrs. Nicholas declared that, “It was a simple concept at first: Why not teach children English by means of the home language? A decade later, ‘disadvantaged’ children were still being taught in their parents’ language. As federal money poured into the program, it gradually became self-perpetuating.... Bilingual education seems to be developing into a permanent means of ethnic compartmentalization. Cultural pluralism may be the norm for a multi-ethnic nation, but it is the family’s role to build a cultural identity in children. The school’s role is to help them enter the mainstream of school life and, eventually, the mainstream of the United States of America.”

Discussing the essential flaw in bilingual education programs, Michael Gonzales wrote in The Wall Street Journal that, “I know about bilingual education first-hand. When my family came to this country from Cuba via Spain... the New York city public school system, in its infinite wisdom, put me in a bilingual program, despite my family’s doubts. The program delayed my immersion in English, created an added wedge between new immigrants and other students, and was sometimes used as a dumping ground for troubled Spanish-speakers more fluent in English.... While a bilingual program of short duration that truly aims at quick immersion in the English-speaking culture would be of value, the lobbying groups that support bilingual education appear to have other aims in mind: chiefly, pushing the Spanish language as something in need of protection and creating a multi-cultural, multi-lingual nation.”

Former Governor Richard Lamm of Colorado argues that, “The future success of this country is closely linked to the ability of our immigrants to succeed.... America must make sure the melting pot continues to melt: immigrants must become Americans.... The U.S. is at a crossroads. If it does not consciously move toward greater integration, it will inevitably drift toward more fragmentation. Cultural divisiveness is not a bedrock upon which a nation can be built. It is inherently unstable.... We can be Joseph’s coat of many nations, but we must be united. One of the common glues that hold us together is language — the English language. We should be color-blind but linguistically cohesive. We should be a rainbow but not a cacophony. We should welcome different peoples but not adopt different languages.”

Discussing the recent Supreme Court decision, Phil Kent, a board member of ProEnglish, states: “Nogales school officials were trying to follow a successful model in spite of a vocal multilingual lobby that seeks to coddle non-English speakers in our classrooms. Yet polls continue to show that more than 90 percent of Americans view English as the nation’s unifying language — a common tongue that enables job-seeking legal newcomers to participate in the American dream. The Supreme Court couldn’t have sent a clearer signal: Get rid of bilingual education and give English language learners a real opportunity to learn English and succeed.”

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2009 by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing editor to such publications as Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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© 2009 Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation