The Hot-Button Immigration Issue Everyone’s Ignoring
Life + Money

The Hot-Button Immigration Issue Everyone’s Ignoring

REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Lawmakers in Washington appear to be inching closer to a long-anticipated immigration overhaul that would address issues from pathway to citizenship to border security. But the bill it is not expected to address issues impacting tens of millions of families across the country: how to educate students who don’t speak English.

The fight over bilingual education has been especially passionate. Some believe that students should be forced to learn English through immersion, while others argue that students who do not speak English should receive education in their own language while they learn English. Some believe it should be a combination of both. Hints of anti-immigrant sentiments soil the debate.

The Obama administration has been relatively silent on its bilingual education position. During the 2012 presidential campaign, President Obama said he backed transitional bilingual education.

His most forceful remarks on the subject came in 2008, when he said, “I agree that immigrants should learn English. But instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English -- they'll learn English -- you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish. You should be thinking about how can your child become bilingual. We should have every child speaking more than one language.”

He added, “You know, it's embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe and all we can say is 'merci beaucoup.”

Those remarks got him into hot water, with the right accusing him of prioritizing learning Spanish over teaching English to Spanish speakers. But Washington’s continued silence on the issue refuses to acknowledge a problem that is going to continue to grow.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, one in four students enrolled in public schools is now Hispanic. Many of these students grow up in Spanish-speaking households and are now proficient in English when they enroll in elementary school.

Numbers from the National Center of Education Statistics back up Pew’s findings.

“The number of school-age children (children ages 5–17) who spoke a language other than English at home rose from 4.7 to 11.2 million between 1980 and 2009, or from 10 to 21 percent of the population in this age range. From 2006 to 2009, this percentage remained between 20 and 21 percent,” the Center found. “After increasing from 4 to 7 percent between 1980 and 2000, the percentage of school-age children who spoke a language other than English at home and spoke English with difficulty decreased to 5 percent in 2009.”

The lack of federal requirements on bilingual education has placed the regulatory burden on the states. It’s created a patchwork of inconsistent policies.

California, which has the largest number of non-English speaking students in the country, immerse students in English for one year before transitioning them to a classroom where they receive half of their instruction in their native language. Massachusetts mandates immersion for one year, then transition to English-speaking classes. Four states – Texas, New Jersey, New York and Illinois – require schools to provide bilingual education.

The vast majority of students who don’t speak English come from Hispanic homes. But there are a growing number of students from Asian and Arabic backgrounds that arrive at school unable to speak English. In New York State schools, more than 200 languages are spoken.

Bilingual education is nothing new. It began in 1968, when the federal government passed the Bilingual Education Act. A version of this act still exists today under No Child Left Behind. According to the 2012, the federal Office of English Language Acquisition had an operations budget of $750 million, and had the authority to dish out $658 million in state grants. 

The debate over how to educate non-English speakers breaks down into two camps. On one side are states like California, which do structured immersion. On the other are states like Illinois, which provides education in another language.

According to a Brown University study, bilingual education is more expensive. It found that Texas schools that provided lessons in more than one language spend $402 more on a student than schools that do not. Other studies maintain bilingual education programs cost between $200 and $700 more than other approaches. A 2003 Berkeley study determined immersion is the most effective way to learn a language. Others advocate submersion, a watered-down immersion in which the native language is used along with English.

Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a group that backs immersion, said the need for immersion was not about saving money, but inclusion.

“You separate children by national origin for a big chunk of their education,” he said. “It’s better for children to be sharing the same class.”