Bilingual Education

On June 2, 1998, California voters approved Proposition 227, a measure designed to eliminate bilingual education, the use of another language along with English, in their public schools. In the preceding two decades there had been many other efforts to do away with bilingual education. The subject is a lightning rod of controversy and one of the most recognizable issues in what commentators have termed the nation's "culture wars." Its history is as controversial as its practice. One central question is whether or not the United States had a true "bilingual tradition." Another is to what degree bilingual education represented movements toward either assimilation or ethnic maintenance.

Bilingual education goes back as far as the colonial period in the United States. Franciscan missionaries from California to Texas systematically used indigenous languages in translating and teaching the Catholic catechism to Native Americans. In the English-speaking colonies before the American Revolution and up through the early Republic, a myriad of ethnic groups, especially Germans, patronized bilingual schools, although influential thinkers and nationalists such as Noah Webster and Benjamin Franklin opposed them because they feared linguistic heterogeneity.

The nineteenth century witnessed the rise of significant pro-bilingualism legislation, particularly for German speakers. In the 1830s, for example, the state of Ohio constitutionally guaranteed German-English bilingual education to local communities that wanted it. States such as Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin also protected German bilingual education through statutory or constitutional means. Cities such as Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and St. Louis operated large, public bilingual programs for German Americans. Historian Heinz Kloss links the bilingual education of the past with that of today and sees it as evidence of a national bilingual tradition. Several historians defend this interpretation through focused, regional studies. Other scholars criticize this contention, holding instead that it was a disorganized phenomenon and not representative of a true bilingual tradition.

While German Americans were certainly the most influential nineteenth-century practitioners of bilingual education, many other groups were also involved. Though often relegated to private bilingual schools due to their lack of political influence, Czechs, Italians, Poles, Mexicans, and others established bilingual programs when they deemed them necessary, usually because of a belief that the public schools were culturally intolerant. Most immigrants wanted their children to speak English, and preferred bilingual to completely non-English schools. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Mexican Americans utilized both public and private bilingual schools, particularly in New Mexico and Texas, which had recently been acquired from Mexico. At this time the state of Louisiana constitutionally protected bilingual instruction for its native French speakers. Chicago's Catholic schools implemented bilingual education for Poles at the turn of the century, with Americanization as the goal. Indeed, one of bilingual education's most important rationales among non-ethnic educators was the belief that it furthered Americanization by making public schools more desirable to ethnic parents and by ensuring some level of English instruction.

This varied, hard-to-define bilingual tradition in nineteenth-century America was the product of a Jeffersonian society committed to principles of local, limited government and undertaken at the behest of the ethnic communities themselves. These ethnic epicenters, sometimes called island communities, were targeted by both the Progressive and Americanization movements in the twentieth century. Progressives advocated centralized control of educational decision making and wanted to standardize the teaching of non-English-speaking children using an English-Only pedagogy. Traditional bilingual methods depended upon literacy in a foreign language for the ultimate acquisition of English. However, English-Only entailed all-English instruction for non-English speakers; not one foreign language word could be used in the lessons. Violation of these rules meant physical punishment and possibly expulsion for students. For teachers it entailed incarceration, fines, and loss of certification. The Americanization movement during the hysteria of World War I resulted in the criminalization of bilingual education. Though the Wilson administration discussed outlawing all German in the nation's public schools, it settled for federal directives to the states urging replacement of bilingual education with English-Only. States pursued this to extremes. But in Meyer v. Nebraska in 1923 the U.S. Supreme Court grudgingly overturned a Nebraska law banning all foreign languages in private institutions.

English-Only pedagogy and IQ testing became key legal and educational justifications for segregated schools. Despite a brief flirtation with foreign languages during World War II, English-Only remained the nation's official pedagogical approach for non-English speakers well into the 1960s. By then scholars had begun to question English-Only's pedagogical assumptions. Also, ethnic activists, especially Mexican Americans, brought increasing legal and political pressure to bear against English-Only's segregating effect on their children. These unrelated forces culminated in the modern bilingual education movement.

The Bilingual Education Act–passed in late 1967 and signed early in 1968–represented bilingual education's rebirth in the United States. It was signed by Lyndon Johnson, the only American president with experience in teaching non-English-speaking children: during the 1928-1929 academic year, the young Johnson taught impoverished Mexican Americans in Cotulla, Texas (ironically he taught his children using English-Only). Bilingual education's growth during the 1970s was aided by its utility as an affirmative curricular tool in desegregation cases. In 1970 the Office of Civil Rights in the Nixon Justice Department ruled that grouping children in so-called "special" or "educationally retarded" classes on the basis of language was a violation of their civil rights. Spurred by Chinese-American parents, the Supreme Court ruled four years later in Lau v. Nichols that schools were obligated to offer non-English-speaking children equal educational opportunity, in this case bilingual education.

However, bilingual education was never uniformly accepted. By the late 1970s a significant backlash against it developed among serious intellectuals and nativist groups. The Reagan administration actively sought to discredit bilingual education by promoting English as a Second Language (ESL) as a better option. This politicization escalated in the 1990s, culminating in California's Proposition 227. In the early twenty-first century, bilingual education remains a hot-button political issue with an indisputably rich and meaningful history in the United States.

See also: Education, United States; Literacy.


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