Hearings on Bilingual Education, School Finance Show Fault Lines at Capitol

At two interim committee meetings this week in the Texas legislature, lawmakers rehearsed for debates to come in the 2011 session over bilingual education and school finance. Today’s Hotline will focus on the debate over bilingual education; an upcoming Hotline will consider the preview we obtained this week of lawmakers’ school-finance concerns.

The Senate Education Committee on Tuesday heard evidence of dissatisfaction from across the political spectrum with the state’s efforts in bilingual education. For instance, from one direction, Sen. Dan Patrick, Republican of Houston, complained that Texas public schools are burdened needlessly with the cost of teaching English as a second language to students born in the United States. Their parents, he asserted, ought to be taking responsibility themselves for immersing them in English before they ever get to school.

From a quite different vantage point, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund said the state is failing to provide properly for the services English Language Learners should be receiving as prescribed in federal and state law. MALDEF attorney David Hinojosa noted that the state is funding bilingual and English as a Second Language instruction at a level far below the amount called for by the state’s own research. He criticized state monitoring of bilingual/ESL programs, contending that oversight of local programs amounts to little more than “desk audits” often conducted by individuals lacking bilingual/ESL expertise. The consequences of neglect, he said, can be seen in extremely high dropout rates of ELL students. A solution to these problems starts with improved monitoring and accountability, funding that comes closer to the levels actually needed, and a pilot project to explore effective ELL programs at the secondary level, where research on best practices has been minimal, Hinojosa said.

Texas AFT legislative counsel Patty Quinzi drew committee members’ attention to some effective strategies identified at a recent forum on bilingual education for dealing with the rapidly growing ELL population in our schools. (That population, she noted, has grown 58.2 percent over the past ten years in Texas public schools, and some 87 percent of the children in this group have been categorized as economically disadvantaged.) Quinzi cited efforts to provide wraparound services via city and county agencies, community organizations, and nonprofit groups to address unmet needs of disadvantaged ELL children and their families. After-school academic programs, health, dental, and social services, job banks, housing counseling and information, and GED and training programs for parents all help eliminate the barriers to success for students and entire communities.

Quinzi reminded committee members who had attended the recent bilingual forum of what they heard there when bilingual/ESL specialists from across the state were asked: What would be the single best intervention for their students? The answer, overwhelmingly, was that providing access for all of these students to high-quality pre-kindergarten programs would make the most difference. For further guidance on what works and what doesn’t work in bilingual education, Quinzi urged the committee to review a comprehensive analysis of research findings provided by a set of articles in the Summer 2008 issue of American Educator, AFT’s professional journal (see http://www.aft.org/pdfs/americaneducator/summer2008/ae_summer08.pdf.)

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