The Magazine


Dec 22, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 15 • By VINCENT CARROLL
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SEVENTEEN YEARS AFTER Ronald Reagan pledged to abolish the Department of Education, few Republicans in Congress will even discuss that goal, let alone pursue it. Perhaps they have lost sight of how some education bureaucrats spend their time when unconstrained by fear of political reprisal.

Consider, for example, the recent behavior of the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights toward the school district in Denver. At a moment when Denver is taking bold risks to boost academic achievement -- including mandatory summer school for poor readers and a revamped program for thousands of students who don't speak English -- the Office for Civil Rights has asked the Justice Department to mire the district in a destructive legal battle.

The district's offense? Its proposed reform for bilingual education does not match in every detail the canon preferred by federal officials. And because the district's democratically elected board -- including one black and one Hispanic member -- unanimously disagrees with the federal prescription, it has been accused of discriminating against students on the basis of their national origin.

No one disputes the state of the bilingual program that Denver intends to retool. It is a failure, at least to the limited extent anyone has bothered to measure its results over the years. Even the district acknowledges that during one recent two-year period, "40 percent of students tested made no progress on a test of oral English proficiency." With more than 20 percent of Denver's students speaking a language other than English, this abysmal performance qualifies as a civic scandal.

Not that the district has any intention of doing away altogether with bilingual instruction, wise as that might be. Under a 1984 consent decree imposed by U.S. judge Richard Matsch (now of Oklahoma City bombing-trial fame) , the district probably could not dump bilingual instruction if it wanted to. Not only did Matsch require elaborate English-acquisition programs, he was positively disdainful of the district's desire to mainstream immigrant students sooner rather than later. "The fortunate few," he dubbed those children in full-blown bilingual programs, while lecturing Denver officials on the nature of democracy.

To this day, wholesale revisions to Denver's bilingual program must pass muster with Matsch, so the district has little choice Out to make the best of a dubious educational model. And that is precisely what it has sought to do. Under the district's new bilingual plan, Spanish-speaking students would still be taught core subjects in their native tongue. But they would move into "sheltered English" or mainstream classes in three years or less, rather than at the more stately pace common today. Students not able to make the transition on time would receive special attention in an effort to spur their progress.

In addition, Denver would give parents a greater say in where their children are placed and abandon the rigid practice of retaining students in special programs solely because they score below the cutoff on a standardized test. This last rule, originally imposed by Matsch, ignores the fact that thousands of Denver students who speak nothing but English also score badly on the tests.

To the Office for Civil Rights, such common-sense reform smacks of the spirit of Orval Faubus. Not only does the agency oppose virtually every initiative to streamline the bilingual program and nudge students into regular classes on a reasonable schedule, it demands the adoption of policies that would expand the program and quite possibly retard students' already glacial progress.

To appreciate the agency's radical stance, one need only review a broadside sent last July from the agency's Lillian Gutierrez to superintendent Irv Moskowitz. In her letter, Gutierrez asserts, "Determining that a national- origin language-minority student speaks only English, or speaks English most of the time, is not equivalent to determining that the student is proficient in the language skills required to participate meaningfully in an English- only academic environment." In other words, the fact that a student speaks only English shouldn't exclude him from a program meant for students who don't speak English; the district is expected to test and in many cases provide special assistance for students simply because they hail from a home in which someone speaks a foreign language.