Bad Luck for Bilingual Students: Why Today’s English Learners May Be Doomed

by multilingualmania on November 18, 2010

in English Learners, Language Policy


The recession still has a strangle hold on school budgets throughout the nation and bilingual students are paying the price. Sadly, it seems that the country’s urban centers, which often have the highest concentration of English learners, are suffering the most. The recent widespread budget cuts that have devastated teachers, students, and staff throughout my hometown of Chicago provide an excellent example. In less than a year, more than 2,000 teaching jobs were slashed in Chicago alone and state funding for Transitional Bilingual Education was sliced in half.

When word of the cuts went public, educators, parents, and advocates of the 155,000+ English learners throughout the state took to the media as well as the courtroom, determined not to let bilingual education go down without a fight. Far from shocking, news of the massive teacher layoffs mingled with similar stories making headlines across the country: from New York City to Los Angeles and scores of little cities in between. Needless to say, it’s a bad time to be learning English in the United States.

Yet, English learners in Chicago were in trouble long before the brutal budget cuts that have rocked the state over the last nine months. Ever since the economic crisis hit in 2007, few Illinois schools have been able to keep up with their growing population of English learners. And Illinois is not alone. In most districts across the nation, bilingual education is low on the totem pole of priorities, often considered just as dispensable as art and music programs, which have been on the chopping block for years. The situation is only further exacerbated by a shortage of qualified bilingual teachers willing to work long hours in over-crowded classrooms for meager pay.

However, the way I see it, the fact that bilingual programs are often the first to go when schools face budget crises presents a much bigger problem than crowded classrooms and unemployed teachers. The ability to speak and understand English is more valuable than ever, not only as a job skill but also as a form of social currency. As loud-mouthed majority language advocates like Glenn Beck become increasingly more vehement in their demands that the growing immigrant population learn English quickly, discrimination against minority language speakers is intensifying, though few of these conservative voices are actually willing to put their tax money where their mouth is. As a result, the youngest generation of English learners faces more obstacles than ever. Not only must they struggle to acquire their second language, they also must wrestle with the hostility and resentment of an English-only movement that is slow to acknowledge the obstacles that stand in these students’ way.

Consequently, today’s English learners are being set up for failure. Many will pass into adulthood and, through no fault of their own, lack the ability to communicate effectively in English, narrowing their opportunities for gainful employment and increasing their chances of being targets of racism and discrimination. It seems highly unlikely that the zealous disciples of the pro-English movement, who are ever more impatient with minority language speakers as the years go on, will be sympathetic to the bilingual students who had the back luck of being in school during this recession.

The good news is that the Chicago public school board recently announced plans to recreate 1,300 jobs. The bad news is that many teachers won’t be rehired until the following school year and, even if all 1,300 rehires were qualified bilingual teachers, there would still be a shortage. So, where do bilingual education advocates go from here? Well, as history proves, where there’s a political will, there’s a way. Start by contacting your union representative, your city alderman, and your state senator. And don’t stop there! The time is now to get angry and get organized! One day, bilingual students will thank us. (Hopefully in two or more languages…)

About the Author: Rachael Kay Albers is a freelance writer, English teacher, and theater facilitator working to educate and empower indigenous women in Central America. In her spare time, she loves to maintain and improve her bilingualism by reading novels and watching movies in Spanish.

Further Reading:
The Latino Education Crisis: The Consequences of Failed Social Policies
English Learners Left Behind: Standardized Testing as Language Policy
Forbidden Language: English Learners and Restrictive Language Policies

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