Questions about New York City's Bilingual Programs

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri May 9 18:26:48 UTC 2003

New York Times, May 9, 2003

Questions Abound Over Delay in Schools' Bilingual Program


      When Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg unveiled his blueprint in January to
overhaul the city's school system, he said that Chancellor Joel I. Klein
would submit plans within 60 days for improving programs for disabled
students and those who are learning English. But while Mr. Klein released
his special education plan in early April, he has yet to say how he will
change programs for students learning English. Rumors about what he is
planning for the city's 134,000 English language learners and why it is
taking so long are ricocheting around the city.

"Sixty days have come and are long gone," said Lorraine Cortes-Vazquez,
president of the Hispanic Federation, an advocacy group, which met with
Mr. Klein and Mr. Bloomberg in late March to talk about bilingual
education. "We definitely want to know what they are thinking, but we are
just waiting to see." Many educators say the delay is a sign of tension
between Mr. Bloomberg and Deputy Chancellor Diana Lam. Ms. Lam has
supported an increase in dual-language programs, in which English-speaking
students and Spanish-speaking students learn together in both languages.
The programs are well regarded but are often more costly than traditional
English-as-a-second-language or bilingual programs.

Others speculate that Mr. Bloomberg is carefully treading because he does
not want to alienate the Hispanic constituency, which helped him win
election in 2001. Two years ago, the Board of Education voted to approve a
plan under Chancellor Harold O. Levy to give parents the right to move
their children to English-as-a-second-language classes, which focus on
intensive rudimentary English for most of the day. But the plan stalled
after Mr.  Levy could not secure the $66 million needed to put it in

How to teach students English has proved to be a divisive issue, with many
advocacy groups speaking out strongly for bilingual programs and
conservative politicians calling for short intensive English-only
programs, known as immersion. In the past, New York City students who
spoke little English were typically placed in bilingual classes, where, in
addition to English, they learned subjects like science and mathematics in
their native language. The policy came out of a 1974 lawsuit by Aspira, a
Latino civil rights group, which later signed a consent decree that
required that students be taught at least partly in their native language.

But Mr. Bloomberg has expressed reservations about the regulations
surrounding bilingual education, referring to them in his January speech
as a "legal labyrinth that constantly frustrates change." Those awaiting
the bilingual education plan have studied Mr. Bloomberg's remarks, looking
for hidden meanings and signs of his philosophy. They point to his
campaign statements, which said students should learn English as quickly
as possible. Yesterday, Mr. Bloomberg said that the Education Department
was looking at the numbers before making a decision, adding that
"different ethnic groups feel very differently"  about bilingual

"Some come here for a brief period of time and don't have any interest in
learning to speak English," he said. "Most kids in our school system are
going to be here, we hope, for the rest of their lives, and we want to
find what is best for them." Such comments indicate to some that the mayor
favors wiping out the existing system and replacing it with immersion
programs. "We told him not to go there," Ms. Cortes-Vazquez said. "It's a
political hotbed."

Like some others who have met with the mayor, she said she was hopeful
that officials were going over plans carefully. "It's clear they want
something that is educationally sound," she said. "I wish they would take
even longer." Deputy Mayor Dennis M. Walcott said that reports of conflict
between Mr.  Bloomberg and Ms. Lam were "false projections." "We're
reviewing every issue on this," Mr. Walcott said. "The politics of this
doesn't weigh any different than any other issue. The main thing is a
system that educates all children equally."

Still, some educators wondered whether schools would have enough time to
put new programs into place this fall. Mr. Walcott said that he expected
each of the programs to be ready in September but that they could be
phased in over time. The secrecy surrounding bilingual education is no
different than for other parts of Mr. Bloomberg's and Mr. Klein's plans to
overhaul the city's school system. Some advocates and educators who were
often consulted under previous chancellors said they have been left out of
high-level discussions and designs for changes.

The new Panel for Education Policy will have to sign off on whatever
policy Mr. Klein proposes, and several members predicted that a vigorous
debate would precede the vote. Jacquelyn Kamin, a panel member from
Manhattan, said, "That's going to be the most interesting vote we've had
all year."

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