Questions Abound Over Delay in Schools' Bilingual Program

New York  Times
May 9, 2003


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 Cortés-Vázquez, 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 place.
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 education.
"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. Cortés-Vázquez 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."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company