The History of Bilingual Education as a Civil Right in the United States-Part Three

by multilingualmania on June 25, 2010

in Bilingual Advocacy, Bilingual Education, Bilingual Politics, History, Language in Society, Language Policy, NCLB, Politics

Part Three: The Late-Twentieth Through the Early Twenty-First Century

This is the final article in a three-part series detailing the development of the United States bilingual education movement. Part One followed bilingual education back to its infancy and examined early-twentieth century laws discouraging multiculturalism and prohibiting native-language instruction. Part Two focused on bilingual education and the Civil Rights Movement, highlighting the landmark legislation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1968 Bilingual Education Act (BEA).

The series concludes with a review of language education in the United States over the last thirty years. Federal law now requires that all public schools provide equal educational opportunities for minority language students. Yet, despite its progress, the bilingual education movement continues to expand as civil rights activists are forced to defend native-language instruction against a growing English-only campaign.

Throughout the 1980s, various court decisions defined the specific actions that schools were required to take in order to comply with the Equal Educational Opportunities Act (EEOA). The Supreme Court mandated that states monitor their language education programs, which were to be evaluated by the soundness of their underlying educational theories, the quality of their teaching staff, and their systems of review. As the immigrant population gradually increased and the courts overflowed with post-EEOA civil rights litigation, bilingual education became a prominent issue in the nation’s political discourse.

Yet, while the Civil Rights movement of the mid-twentieth century helped to place bilingual education in the spotlight, it also opened up native-language instruction to criticism from English-only advocates, whose influence exploded in the 1980s. As immigration boomed, native-language instruction came under fire and the language education debate became a forum for discussing the perceived threat that multiculturalism posed to national unity. In response, when Congress amended the Bilingual Education Act (BEA) in 1988, it relaxed restrictions on English immersion programs and emphasized quick transitions to English classrooms.

While the anti-English movement was steadily gaining momentum in the United States, the international community nearly unanimously acknowledged bilingual education as a basic human right. The United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989, stated that education should cultivate a child’s respect for his or her own language and that ethnic, religious, or linguistic minority children should not be prohibited from speaking their native tongue. The United States did not sign the Convention until 1995 and, as of today, remains the only country other than Somalia to abstain from ratifying it.

Undiminished by the international wave of policies promoting multiculturalism and language preservation, the English-only movement grew progressively stronger throughout the 1990s. Bilingual education activists worked hard to defend native-language instruction against aggressive legislation like the Language For All People Act of 1993 and the National Language Act of 1995, which, if passed, would have made English the official language and eliminated all funding for bilingual education programs. The English Plus movement originated as a response to the English-only campaign and promoted a culture of English fluency in tandem with the development of native-language skills, placing a special emphasis on preserving the nation’s indigenous languages.

Despite growing anti-bilingual sentiments throughout the country, advocates for native-language instruction made substantial progress with the 1994 re-authorization of the Bilingual Education Act (BEA). The amendments acknowledged minority language students’ capacity for academic excellence while simultaneously encouraging and promoting the benefits of multilingualism. However, the act’s pro-bilingual policy attracted heavy criticism from English-only proponents, many of whom celebrated when the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) eliminated the Bilingual Education Act (BEA) completely in 2001. NCLB, which does not refer directly to bilingualism, discourages native-language instruction and stresses English acquisition, punishing schools whose students fail to reach fluency quickly.

Since the passage of NCLB, the language education debate in the United States has only intensified. Advocates for English-only education assert that immersion is fast, efficient, and economical. Critics disagree with this “sink or swim” approach and maintain that English-only policies discourage multiculturalism and prevent minority language students from reaching their full potential. Proponents of bilingual education emphasize that language acquisition is a progressive process and accuse immersion programs of denying equal opportunities to minority language students in their core academic classes.

Nearly ten years have passed since the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act re-shaped education policy and states like Arizona, California, and Massachusetts adopted anti-bilingual education initiatives. Many advocates for bilingual education look to the Obama administration’s impending education reform as an opportunity for positive change. Others are hopeful that the recent attention and controversy over the SB 1070 Arizona immigration law will breathe new life into the national dialogue on bilingual education. Like many civil rights battles in the United States, over a century and a half of discourse and struggle have not resolved the issue of how to provide equal educational opportunities to minority language students. If it is to meet the challenges posed by English-only militancy and the struggling national economy, the bilingual education movement must continue to evolve as it has over the past 150 years.


Other Parts in this Series:
Part One: The Late-Eighteenth Through the Early-Twentieth Century
Part Two: The Mid-Twentieth Century

Recommended Reading:
English Learners Left Behind: Standardized Testing as Language Policy
Educating Emergent Bilinguals: Policies, Programs and Practices for English Language Learners

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Ana Lilian June 27, 2010 at 3:58 pm

Thanks for taking the time to write such a comprehensive resource!

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