A Civil Rights Legacy Squandered? Bilingual Education and the Reauthorization of No Child Left Behind

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As Congress continues its work on the long-overdue reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), debates about Title I funding, testing, standards, accountability and charter schools have captured the bulk of the media’s attention. Much less consideration has been given to another (and historically important) aspect of the legislation, which is also known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA): bilingual education.

In 1968, the Bilingual Education Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, becoming Title VII of ESEA – a hard-fought civil rights victory. However, beginning in the 1980s (as I’ve chronicled in The Bilingual School in the United States) subsequent reauthorizations of ESEA began to reflect the political pressure of the English-only movement and, thus, included more funding for non-bilingual programs, such as English as a Second Language (ESL) and English immersion. The term “bilingual” was removed from the 2001 reauthorization when the act was renamed “No Child Left Behind.” Although bilingual education is not prohibited by ESEA, it is not encouraged either; the transitioning of English learners to only English rather than cultivating their bilingualism has become the preferred practice.

This slow but steady retreat from dual-language instruction is problematic because many language scholars agree that bilingual education serves the needs of English learners better than ESL or English immersion programs. That is, numerous studies – brilliantly analyzed and synthesized in Eugene E. Garciá’s Teaching and Learning in Two Languages – show that instruction in students’ home language provides a linguistic foundation for the learning of English (and other languages) and bolsters their self-esteem, precisely what the Bilingual Education Act originally hoped to achieve.

Currently, there are two competing bills to reauthorize ESEA in Congress. Both the Senate’s Every Child Achieves Act and the House’s Student Success Act essentially stay the course with regard to language policy. Both versions have categorized “limited English proficient” children as “English learners” – a slightly more positive label, but one that still keeps the focus on English – but there are some differences between the bills as well.

The Senate’s legislation merely tweaks No Child Left Behind’s section on language instruction – Title III – while the House’s rendition eliminates a specific division for this purpose and primarily addresses language issues within the multifaceted Title I. Like the various ESEA reauthorizations since the 1980s, bilingual education is permitted, but the focus is on its development of English-language skills, not bilingualism. For example, the House version allows the “instructional use of both English and a child’s native language” to “attain English language proficiency” (section 1221). With the primary focus on “English language proficiency,” rather than bilingualism, linguistic minorities’ arduous civil rights journey has been ignored. Continuing in the tradition of NCLB, both of these reauthorization bills squander the historical legacy of the Bilingual Education Act.

As a historian of education who studies bilingual instruction in the United States, I sometimes hear the common refrain that “my grandparents came from Germany (or some other country), and they turned out just fine without bilingual education.” There are a couple of problems with that commonsensical stance. First, it was not until the Great Depression and, especially, the postwar era that the American high school became a mass institution; thus, most students, including foreign-language speakers, left school without completing a secondary education. Financially, many of these folks may have “turned out just fine” because there were plenty of blue-collar jobs in an industrial United States. That is not necessarily the case today.

Second, these mythical grandparents or great-grandparents that so many people mention may have, in fact, received bilingual instruction during their schooling. Many Americans think of bilingual education as an educational practice that emerged during the 1960s and 1970s for Latinos, Asians and Native Americans. Dual-language instruction in the US, however, is as old as public schooling itself.

Because of the local nature of schooling during the 19th century, as I argue in Bilingual Public Schooling in the United States, immigrants often established and shaped the schools in their communities, frequently insisting that their mother tongues be cultivated in the curriculum. German-English public schools were ubiquitous throughout the nation, while Norwegian and French bilingual schools could be found in the upper Midwest and Louisiana, respectively. As new groups of immigrants arrived in the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century, Italian and Polish language programs began to make an appearance in local elementary schools.

The bilingual programs during the 19th and early-20th centuries had a multitude of competing (and sometimes overlapping) aims from attracting immigrants into the public schools so they could be “Americanized” to providing – to use today’s terminology – a sort of multicultural, nondiscriminatory education. Regardless of their goals, bilingual and elementary foreign-language programs were relatively common. During the 1870s in Cincinnati, Ohio, over half of the public elementary students received a German-English curriculum. In 1900 – a time when dual-language instruction was waning because of Americanization programs that emphasized English only – more US students received bilingual instruction than in 1975, as I documented in PowerPlay: A Journal of Educational Justice (Vol. 4, No. 1).

The First World War brought forth a patriotic zealotry that took aim at anything deemed un-American, including German-English bilingual programs. Nevertheless, dual-language instruction endured and even thrived after WWI, especially for newly arrived Mexican immigrants and the Native Americans, who, by the 1920s, witnessed a reversal of government policies regarding bilingual instruction in their schools. This interwar bilingual activity laid the groundwork for the passage of the Bilingual Education Act – Title VII of ESEA – in the postwar era.

At a time in which many civil rights in education have been weakened – the US Supreme Court, for instance, partially undermined the 1954 Brown decision (which, to some extent, inspired the Bilingual Education Act) with Milliken and subsequent decisions – a rare opportunity to strengthen a historic benefit for linguistic minorities has presented itself.

As the House and Senate attempt to merge their conflicting versions of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, education lobbyists and other concerned citizens should remember this civil rights portion of the legislation and reach out to the members of Congress to advocate for additional support (and funding) for bilingual education.