- The Washington Times - Monday, July 7, 2003

NEW YORK — Bilingual education in the city’s public schools, judged a failure by just about every study and standard, has always served as a political trap waiting for unwary politicians in this city of immigrants.

So when as a mayoral candidate Michael R. Bloomberg declared himself an advocate of English-only education, parent groups and conservative educators held their breath.

Once elected, it did not take long for Mr. Bloomberg, a lifelong Democrat who gained a ballot position by turning Republican, to realize his mistake. Faced with plummeting popularity ratings, especially among Hispanics, the mayor reversed course and announced that more teachers and materials are the answer to creating a successful bilingual education program.

As part of a heralded makeover of the city’s public schools system, the administration has committed $20 million to the program, which allows students to take their core academic courses in their native tongue — whether it is Spanish, Haitian or Chinese — while taking English courses.

“I’ve been in the business of bilingual education for a long time, and this is first time I feel that the mayor has a plan based on education, not politics,” said Lorraine Cortes-Vazquez, president of the Hispanic Federation, an organization of social service groups.

“Now we can talk about merits rather than whether it’s anti-American and anti-patriotic,” she added. “An insufficient number of trained teachers and the poorest resources have handicapped the program from the start.”

The rationale for bilingual education — as opposed to English “immersion,” in which students must take all their courses in English — rests on the argument that students will perform poorly without a gradual introduction of English into all study courses.

Mrs. Cortes-Vazquez is typical of the entrenched interests that have made bilingual education a virtual untouchable issue. In a city overwhelmingly in favor of liberal Democrats who favor spending on social programs, rare is the voice raised against this program.

Former Democratic Mayor Ed Koch, a solid supporter of Mr. Bloomberg, is one of the few who dares take issue with him.

“It’s a mistake,” Mr. Koch said. “If you sat down with most parents and give them an option for their children to speak English fluently, they would opt for speaking English as quickly as possible. But for Hispanic political leaders it’s a job factory.”

A survey among Hispanic voters last month indicated that 82 percent of those polled said Mr. Bloomberg is doing a poor job. The survey, commissioned by the Hispanic Federation of New York, came out within days of the mayor’s change of heart.

Mrs. Cortes-Vazques is one among many who say it is too difficult for students not proficient in English to learn the complexities of math and science. An estimated 138,000 city students do not know how to write or speak English.

The mayoral task force on bilingual education reported three years ago that more than half the students enrolled in bilingual classes, those taught in their native languages, did not transfer to regular classes within the three years the state requires.

According to a Lexington Institute study in 2002, more than 83 percent of the ninth-grade students who entered the city’s bilingual program did not test out of the program after four years.

The mayor’s new program calls for 60 percent of instruction to be in a native language and 40 percent in English, with the amount of English gradually increasing. This is just one part of the systemwide reorganization that gives the mayor control of a system that once belonged to a now-defunct Board of Education.

Thirty-two local school districts have been replaced by 10 instructional divisions and six regional support centers. Former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani laid much of the groundwork for this decentralization during his eight years in office.

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