- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2007

I had to laugh to keep from crying yesterday, when the following statistics from the Commission on No Child Left Behind popped into my e-mail box: “Since 1994, the number of English language learners in U.S. schools has grown from 2 million to 3 million students in 2000 and to 5 million students today. This represents a 65 percent increase in the English language learner population since 1994.”

Now I know that by “English language learners” the commission means students for whom English is not their native language, but let’s be real. While local governments, educrats and the unenlightened continue to make it a top priority for people from other lands to “learn” English, what about the children whose American roots run as deep as a Live Oak?

Look at English literacy another way. When I visited Israel, Cairo, Ghana and Uganda in recent years, I always made a point of visiting schools, and was utterly delighted to speak with children who spoke multiple languages. They spoke English, of course, but also, because of colonialism, they spoke French, Hebrew, German, Arabic, Dutch and tribal or regional dialects. Yet, here in American, we’ve allowed the functional-illiteracy rate in the nation’s capital to rise to 36 percent. (God almighty help us if we have to revert to signatures of X’s.)

Every language has distinctive beauty and perfect idiosyncrasies, and English is no different. And where would America be without the huddled masses that came here to be free?

The literacy problem grows because the common national identity — American English — seemingly is a priority no more. We teach Vietnamese children in their language, Latinos in Spanish. What in heaven’s name are we teaching American children?

How shameful in a country that once enacted laws that prohibited slaves from reading. For generations, blacks utilized the Bible as a language instructor. And it wasn’t just blacks either. Scots, Irish and Italians depended on the Bible, too, and not just for nourishing the soul.

We have a moral obligation to educate our young so that the next generation is better off than the current one. We have fallen way short of that responsibility and, in some instances, have actually moved backward. In D.C., for example, students used to take courses in foreign languages — French, Spanish, Latin, Russian — in high school, but often beginning in elementary school. Today, students learning a foreign language are from other continents but being taught English.

What happens when illiterate juveniles become illiterate adults? If — and that’s a big if — if they manage to get employment for hourly wages, they still shortchange their employers. In 2001, for instance, the National Association of Manufacturers survey of employers about skill deficiencies found some brutally honest information. The results: 59.1 percent stated poor basic employability skills (attendance, work ethic, etc.); 32.4 percent had poor reading/writing skills; 26.2 percent had inadequate math skills; 25 percent were unable to communicate; and 23.7 had poor English language skills.

While a dropout might be able to get a job as a janitor at his neighborhood high school, he limits his own employment prospects and his ability to take care of his growing family if he’s incapable of such simple tasks as calculating how much wax he uses for classroom and hallway floors on a quarterly basis. Forget about developing the technical skills to become a certified mechanical engineer.

The economic and social costs of illiterate, low-skilled Americans hurts all American taxpayers — and the costs are undeniable, too. As an April 4 special report by the Heritage Foundation pointed out, the average low-skilled household received $32,138 in immediate benefits and services — i.e. welfare, food stamps, Social Security, etc. — from federal, state and local governments in fiscal 2004. The report said: “[T]here were 17.7 million low-skill households. … Over the next ten years the net cost of these households to the taxpayer will be at least $3.9 trillion.”

Who’s who, you ask? “While 9 percent of native born adults lack a high school degree,” the Heritage paper said, “the figure is 25 percent for legal immigrants, and roughly 50 percent for illegal immigrants.”

That picture mirrors the rhetoric that popped into my e-mail. It’s a crying shame.

Hmm. Live Oaks, Bibles and literacy. Think either will wield influence on that guy who occupies the White House and cares ever-so-much about the voluntary slaves who cross our southern border?

I hardly oppose the No Child Left Behind Act. I oppose policy-makers, bureaucrats and pundits who don’t put the interests of American children first. The last thing American children of illiterate American parents need is to be promoted through public schools without thoroughly grasping English.

Let’s see what President Bush and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings do about that.

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