Bilingual Education: A Goal for All Children

The recent vote in Arizona underscores that many people don’t appreciate the importance of bilingual education.

The Arizona vote, which mandates English-only instruction for those who do not speak English, comes two years after a similar referendum in California. Both were spearheaded and financed by Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz, who has pledged to take his campaign to other states.

Unless lessons are learned from Arizona and California, Unz will likely have more successes. What’s troublesome is that Unz obviously learns. As explained in James Crawford’s article on page 3, Unz crafted the Arizona ballot initiative so that it plugs some of the loop holes in the California law that allow many students to continue to receive bilingual education. One can assume that his next initiative, which will probably be in Colorado, will be even more restrictive. (Crawford, one of the foremost experts on the politics of bilingual education, runs an excellent web site ( which provides invaluable updates and analyses on bilingual education issues.)

One of the lessons from Arizona is that supporters of bilingual education need to better explain to the public that quality bilingual programs are one of the best ways to learn and succeed academically in English. We do not deny that some bilingual programs are substandard – just as some monolingual English classrooms are substandard. The issue is not getting rid of bilingual programs, but making sure they have the teachers, resources, and leadership to succeed.

The second lesson is somewhat counter-intuitive. While the anti-bilingual vote was sizable, there is no strong evidence of a popular movement against bilingual education. As Crawford is quoted in the Arizona Republic newspaper, “The only reason there (was) an initiative in Arizona is because Ron Unz put it there. It’s still being promoted by a small number of right-wing ideologues. This is not a large popular movement that most people care about.”

To defeat Unz progressive forces must do a better job of educating the public about the benefits of bilingual education. Stephen Krashen’s new book, Condemned Without a Trial: Bogus Arguments Against Bilingual Education, is a excellent place to unlearn the many myths surrounding bilingual education.


The Arizona and California votes also raise complicated issues of multiculturalism, assimilation, the relationship between power and language, and one’s view of the history and future of the United States.

It is not surprising that the main person behind both the California and Arizona anti-bilingual initiatives – Ron Unz – is an opponent of what he calls the “multicultural agenda.” Bilingual education places inherent value on being literate in a second language; in addition, bilingual education values and respects the cultures of those who don’t speak English as their first language, thus building a bridge to these communities.

Interestingly, the anti-bilingual initiative in Arizona was ardently opposed by the state’s Native American communities – which have a long history of understanding the central role of language in maintaining identity and culture. Under the Arizona initiative, programs that seek to preserve Native languages are likely to be deemed “bilingual” and thus in violation of what is now Arizona law.


Native Americans also know first-hand the dangers of assimilationist ideology. For decades, Native children were taken from tribal homes and schools, placed in boarding schools, and forced to learn English and other cultural norms of the dominant white society.

We do not believe it is a coincidence that anti-bilingual initiatives are proliferating at a time when there is concern about the growing power of non-white communities. Fundamentally, the debate is not over whether immigrants should learn English. Everyone agrees they should. Rather, the underlying issue (rarely articulated but ever-present) involves the right to maintain and use one’s native language – and all that implies culturally, politically, and linguistically. That this underlying issue is rarely articulated should not be surprising; the dominant culture in this country is quite adept at masking issues of race, culture, and power.

Educators need to pay special attention to such issues. The importance of bilingual education for students who do not speak English as their first language goes beyond language acquisition. Bilingual education is a prerequisite for establishing a school environment that welcomes all students’ cultures, sends a positive message to students, and sets the groundwork for a relationship of respect and equality between schools and all families and communities.

It is important that progressives stress the value of bilingual programs in learning English. But we should also frame the issue in terms of power and that basic human right to maintain one’s mother tongue.

It’s ironic that the attack on bilingual education comes at a time when many white middle-class parents place their children in language immersion programs, with Spanish as one of the most popular. These parents understand the benefits of bilingualism, especially in an era of globalization.

If white middle class children have the opportunity to learn and succeed in a second language, shouldn’t immigrants and other limited-English speakers have the same right? Shouldn’t the language strengths of these students be nourished and seen as a strength?

All children – not just affluent English-speaking students – should have the right to learn, and be proficient in, two languages. Bilingual education makes this possible.