Bilingual education in the United States is at a crossroads. One path has the potential to bridge racial divides and narrow the achievement gap that is exacerbating social and economic inequality. The other turn takes bilingual education down the well-traveled road to exclusivity, privilege, and racism.
When I first began working in bilingual education 15 years ago, I entered a field that was under attack. An initiative outlawing bilingual education had already passed in California and was soon followed by bans in Arizona and Massachusetts. Even states where it was still legal to offer bilingual education were not actively supporting or expanding their bilingual programming. Policy makers wouldn’t touch it.
Fifteen years later the landscape has changed significantly. I recently witnessed Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter along with Philadelphia School District Superintendent William Hite visit a dual language kindergarten classroom at a Philadelphia public school and applaud its innovative approach to education Philadelphia school children. This dual language classroom is one of six such programs that opened in the School District of Philadelphia in the 2014-2015 academic year. This celebration and expansion of dual language education is part of larger national trend.
So how did bilingual education transform from the pariah of education to a mainstream and celebrated innovation? For one, the research that illustrates the benefits of bilingual education can no longer be dismissed. Study after study has demonstrated that students in bilingual programs outperform students in English-only programs. It has become increasingly clear that opposition to bilingual education is political, with little research-based evidence to back it up.
But perhaps more importantly, the primary constituency for bilingual education has also shifted. Historically, the most vocal supporters of bilingual education were Latinos who wanted their children to maintain their Spanish while also learning English. While Latinos continue to advocate for bilingual education, the number of affluent White parents who desire bilingual education for their children has been on the rise.
This shift in constituency has transformed the structure of bilingual education from remedial transitional programs targeting English Language Learners to dual language enrichment programs targeting all students whose parents want them to become bilingual. This re-framing of bilingual education has made these programs more politically palatable and provided them more political legitimacy. This is a great example of cross-racial solidarity that has worked to ensure that more children are able to receive bilingual education.
At the same time, this re-framing has led to troubling trends as these programs become re-branded as selective programs. For example, the city of Holyoke has a dual language program that is reserved for gifted and talented students. A similar phenomenon can be found in Miami-Dade, where the district attempted to phase out its traditional Spanish instruction available to all students in favor of a dual language model available only to students reading at grade level in their dominant language. In Illinois, dual language programs are more likely to be found in affluent White communities than low income communities of color. Tucson has taken this phenomenon to the most egregious level possible by requiring English language proficiency in order for students to participate in dual language education. So while dual language programs are proliferating, they may be doing so in ways that are excluding the original benefactors of bilingual education.
Yet, it is not just English Language Learners who will be affected by this attempt to rebrand dual language education as a selective program for academically gifted students. Instead, any attempt at systematically excluding students from dual language education is likely to impact students of color, low-income students, and special education students as well. Research has demonstrated the benefit of bilingual instruction for all students. This exclusion is nothing more than a new form of discrimination against the most vulnerable students in U.S. public schools. This discrimination will have wide-ranging consequences as affluent White children develop bilingual skills that will make them more attractive to colleges and employers that low-income students of color are denied access to.
Many supporters of bilingual education understand the possible consequences of this rebranding and have rejected it. In Miami-Dade a cross-racial coalition that includes the NAACP and LULAC have demanded more equitable access to bilingual instruction for all students. New York City has framed its expansion of dual language programs around the need to increase the achievement of English Language Learners. And Philadelphia has strived to ensure that dual language options are available in low-income communities with large Latino and African American populations. It is important to continue to support these kinds of initiatives that strive to make bilingual instruction as equitable as possible while continuing to remain vigilant about attempts to re-cast dual language education as selective programs.
Support for bilingual education is stronger than it has been in decades. Yet, a disturbing element of this support is attempting to make bilingual education a privilege available only to certain students. We must build on the momentum in supporting bilingual education while ensuring that these programs are available to all students.