Hard Sell: Why Is Bilingual Education So Unpopular with the American Public?
By James Crawford

Bilingual education has sparked controversy in the USA since the 1970s. Nevertheless, over the next two decades, it continued to enjoy support from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and from ethnic politicians such as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. In 1994, when Congress reauthorized the sixth and final version of the Bilingual Education Act (Title VII), it endorsed a cherished goal of the program’s advocates. The stated purpose of the law was no longer simply to foster English language acquisition and academic achievement for limited-English-proficient (LEP) children. For the first time, it would also seek to develop, ‘to the extent possible, [their] native language skills’ (IASA, 1994: §7102[c]). Yet, at the same time, the legislation sidestepped a contentious issue that had dominated the 1988 reauthorization of Title VII by eliminating a provision that had reserved most funding for native-language programs. Language of instruction would no longer be a hard-and-fast criterion in awarding federal grants. Thus school districts applying for funding would have the flexibility to choose between various pedagogical models, both bilingual and all-English.

Soon the Clinton administration became active in promoting approaches designed to cultivate bilingualism, including two-way bilingual instruction for English-speaking and language-minority students. The US secretary of education declared: ‘It is high time we begin to treat language skills as the asset they are, particularly in this global economy’ (Riley, 2000).

Many advocates for bilingual education in the 1990s believed the program was entering a new era of public acceptance, not to mention marketability to Anglo-American parents. Funding was on the increase and support frompolicymakers seemed assured. Then the bottom dropped out. In 1998, California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 227, an initiative to dismantle most bilingual instruction in the public schools. Similar measures soon passed by larger margins in Arizona and Massachusetts, but failed in Colorado (see Table 1). Although only three states have taken this drastic step so far, together they enroll 43% of the nation’s English language learners (ELLs).

Meanwhile, the Bush administration proposed and Congress adopted the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB, 2002). Among other things, the new law repealed the Bilingual Education Act and expunged all references to bilingualism as a pedagogical goal. In the name of ‘flexibility,’ the new law turns most federal funding for English-learner programs into formula grants administered by the states. Yet, in the name of ‘accountability,’ it features top-down provisions such as mandatory, high-stakes testing in English1 that are likely to discourage states and districts from supporting native-language instruction.

Because of these policy reversals, the continued availability of bilingual education for language-minority students in the United States is suddenly in jeopardy. How did this come to pass?

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