Thursday, November 07, 2002


There’s a very bad joke about kids whose native language is not English. They often go to public schools where the education is so poor, they can be illiterate in not one, but TWO languages.

Ba-bum crash!

But of course that is an exaggeration. Schools have tried to meet the needs of non-English speaking students for many years now, and while there are abuses and disappointing results from place to place, success has not been, well, completely foreign to them.

But there are some exciting, cost-effective and sensible things happening with bilingual education that could have a positive impact on the Nebraska education scene.

Omaha Public Schools, for example, says in its 2002-03 budget that its limited English student population has risen to more than 4,000 in the past decade. That’s going on 10 percent of total enrollment. That influx of immigrant children has had a significant impact on how OPS uses its money and space to deal with the special learning challenges of those who can’t read or write in English very well.

Finding a better, cheaper way to make immigrant kids literate in English would seem to be a godsend in this economic climate, which prompted 60% of the voters in OPS Tuesday to say “no” to a request for extra funding from the state’s largest school district.

Maybe the answer is English immersion, where, generally, immigrant children get one year of special, separate bilingual education to learn English on a fast track, and then they join the general student population.

Voters in Massachusetts Tuesday said “hola” to English immersion and “hasta la vista” to the traditional model of bilingual education, which separates non-English speaking kids into classes taught in their native languages and keeps them from assimilating into the mainstream.

The traditional style of bilingual education – called “English as a Second Language” locally, or “Limited English Proficiency” -- has been called “language apartheid” in the way it separates immigrant children from their peers for most of each school day, often for five to seven years or more. In many cases it is said to cripple their practical understanding and usage of English for the rest of their lives, because they never quite blended into school because of the language barrier.

Ironically, since separate bilingual education got started in Massachusetts, it is interesting to note that Massachusetts voters dumped that format with a 68% voting majority Tuesday, including big wins in heavily minority neighborhoods, directing a change to English immersion.

English immersion is what California and Arizona voters put in place in 1998 and 2000, respectively, by majorities of 61% and 63%, respectively. Why? Because it makes so much sense and it works: California’s test scores have improved dramatically among immigrants. The percentage of Hispanic students who scored above the median in reading shot up from 21% to 35% in just three years.

Efforts in those states were led by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, as was the campaign to dump bilingual ed and switch to English immersion in Colorado.

However, the Colorado ballot measure failed by 12 percentage points Tuesday despite early polling months ago that showed it had 78 percent support in Colorado. What happened in the interim? A Colorado heiress put up $3 million for last-minute ads by the education establishment to fight English immersion.

Those ads have been deemed “race-baiting” in the way they played on fears of white parents that their kids would be slighted in the classroom by infusions of non-English speaking Latinos.

The last-minute ads also used fraudulent financial figures, and the pro-bilingual forces have acknowledged that. The ads had claimed that Arizona spent an extra $442 per ESL student, which amounted to tens of millions of extra dollars . . . but the fact is, the extra spending stemmed from a federal lawsuit settlement, not the vote.

Proponents of English immersion programs say the additional costs to schools are minimal. They say there are significant savings from it in the prevention of future learning difficulties, reduction of extra LEP staff, elimination of onerous federal regulations such as excessive space-per-pupil requirements that cramp regular classrooms in favor of ESL classrooms, and reductions in dropout rates among immigrant children. All of these, they say, more than offset start-up costs.

Best of all, proponents say, English immersion works a lot better for kids than the separate bilingual programs that cost more and employ more staff.

Works better? Saves money? Sounds like an “ole.”



A check of federal education statistics about the nation’s largest 100 school districts shows that some of the peer districts of the Omaha Public Schools have a higher percentage of their students in “Limited English Proficiency” programs yet spend less per pupil overall than the Omaha district.

If the growing number of LEP students in OPS is used in an attempt to gain more state aid from the Legislature next year with claims that the OPS student body is more expensive to educate than available revenue can support, these figures should be cited in rebuttal.


Omaha Public Schools
Operating expense per pupil: $5,741
Percentage of LEP kids: 7.7%

Albuquerque, N.M., Public Schools

Broward County School District, Florida

Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, Texas

Houston, Texas

Tucson, Arizona

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, Common Core of Data, “Characteristics of the 100 Largest Public Elementary and Secondary School Districts in the United States, 2000-01,” http://www.nces.ed.gov/pubs2002/100_largest/

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