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New York eyes English-only legislation

Friday, May 08, 2009

Although the sponsor of legislation to make English New York's official language contends that the initiative would not effect government or educational programs, supporters of bilingual education fear its potential ramifications in light of what has happened in states that have enacted similar laws.

"Bills like this one were the cause for the elimination or reduction of bilingual programs in other states," said Margarita Reyes, incoming president of the New York State Association of Bilingual Education (NYSABE).

Thirty states have made English their official language, and such legislation is pending in 11 other states. Several English-only states also have reduced or eliminated bilingual-education programs, according to information from the 25-year-old language-preservation group called U.S. English. Among these states are:

* Massachusetts, which was the first state to begin offering bilingual education in 1971. It now places most non-native English speakers in English-immersion programs. According to Reyes, Massachusetts teachers can be sued for speaking to their students in a language other than English.

* Arizona, which adopted an official English bill in 2006 after a failed English-only attempt in the early 1990s. Voters in this state chose to offer non-native students English instruction for one year only when they passed proposition 203 in 2000.

* California, which is home to 41 percent of students whose native language is not English. A decade ago the state began offering only English-immersion and English as a second language courses.

New York State Assemblyman Brian Kolb (R-129th district), who is based in Geneva, said he had no specific reason for introducing The New York State English Language Empowerment Act (A5350) other than to meet his constituents' needs.

"A driving force behind the legislation was that residents across our state feel English is New York's official language and should be recognized as such," he said. Kolb did not elaborate further on his reasons for introducing the legislation at this time.

The bill was introduced on Feb. 13. As of May 8, it was being held for consideration in the Assembly's Governmental Operations Committee. The bill has seven cosponsors, including Assemblymen Joseph Errigo, a Republican who represents Monroe, Ontario and Livingston counties.

The bill proposes that the state shall conduct all official business in English and that all official documents, regulations, orders and publications shall be printed in English.

"Other languages may be used by government officials, and in official documents, whenever necessary," the bill states, including when protecting the rights of criminal defendants. It does not "prohibit any elected official from speaking to any person in a language other than English while campaigning or providing constituent service although such officials are encouraged to use English as much as possible to promote fluency in English."

In an e-mail sent from his Albany office, Kolb said that he recognizes the contributions of immigrants who travel to the United States for a better life.

"The New York State English Language Empowerment Act seeks to strengthen this union by promoting assimilation and affirming the central role that learning, speaking, and writing English plays in any successful pursuit of the American dream," he wrote. "While we may not all share a common ancestry, by sharing a common language, we can promote more opportunities and greater prosperity for all Americans."

Even so, Kolb said in an e-mail to El Mensajero Católico that the bill would have no impact on government or education programs.

Yet Alfredo Gonzalez, program director for Rochester's Puerto Rican Youth Development and Resource Center, said that he does not believe the bill would have no impact.

"This bill will have a direct impact on all programs from education to health," he said.

According to information from the University of Dayton School of Law's Dayton Law Review, Arizona's Official English legislation, passed in the 1980s, was later ruled a violation of the First Amendment because it banned use of other languages by governmental agencies and public employees. While Kolb's bill does not include such a ban, Hispanic leaders remain vigilant, and the Assembly's Latino Caucus is developing a strategic response, Gonzalez said. While officials do not expect New York's bill to advance, they still suggest support of a petition drive spearheaded by Reyes of NYSABE, calling for state representatives to vote against this bill. Reyes said that 200 signatures have been collected so far.

Attempts to adopt official-English legislation are unnecessary, according to testimony given in a 2006 report to the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Education Reform by James Crawford, director of the Institute for Language and Educational Policy. Such legislation also is punitive, pointless and inconsistent with American values, according to Crawford. He offered examples of a woman in Amarillo, Texas, who was cited for child abuse because she spoke Spanish to her 5-year-old daughter, and a Huntsville, Ala., county assessor who refused to approve routine tax exemptions for Korean property owners whose English was limited.

"These acts are deeply offensive, not only to recent immigrants, but also to a broader population: Persons who are proud of their heritage both as Americans and as ethnic minorities," Crawford testified. He also offered a quote from U.S. Sen. Mel Martínez, a Cuban immigrant and Republican from Florida: "When they start saying that it's un-American to have ballots printed in Spanish, it sends a message that we're not wanted, not respected."

But it's not only a Hispanic issue, Reyes noted. The Rochester City School District, for example, has students who speak 39 languages and 69 dialects.Yet since Hispanics represent the country's biggest minority group -- U.S. Census information shows that 25 percent of all kindergartners are Hispanic -- ensuring this group's English proficiency is important, Reyes said. But all immigrants should be able to retain their native languages, she added.

"There is a hidden agenda behind this legislation," she said, asserting that the legislation has a discriminatory element.

Gloria Sabastro, a Puerto Rican native and mother of students at three Rochester schools, asserted that the New York bill has an anti-immigration tone.

"It shows a lack of respect for the culture of others," she said. "A society needs to learn to share (information) with speakers of other languages. It's beneficial for them as well as for us. ... I expect more action toward becoming united. There is power in unity."

Reyes noted that decades ago, Hispanic students who could not speak English often were placed in special-education classes. States that have replaced bilingual programs with English-immersion courses are seeing an increase in high-school drop-out rates and more special-education referrals, she noted, all of which will ultimately cost states more money.

Following Massachusetts' 2002 elimination of bilingual education, most schools received little guidance and few resources on instruction for its English learners, with many choosing to implement immersion programs, according to a report from the University of Massachusetts at Boston's Gastón Institute and the Center for Collaborative Education. (The report is available at www.bpe.org.) The study showed that nearly 20 percent of English-language learners in the Boston school district had been placed in special education in 2006, compared to an 11-percent rate in 2002 prior to switching to English-immersion instruction. The drop-out rate of these students has doubled to 12 percent.

Aracelis Ayala, a bilingual teacher at Rochester's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School No. 9, said that students placed in English-immersion programs feel a sense of shock and often withdraw, which may cause them to take longer to learn their new language.

"They need support at school for their native language," she said. "As soon as a child sees a friendly face who speaks their language, it will mean everything to him. To make that connection to a teacher is why bilingual teachers are very important."

Following the April 14 meeting of the Rochester City School District's Bilingual Council, Camille Rivera, whose children attend Lincoln School No. 22, said that if Kolb's proposed legislation leads to immersion-type programs, she fears what would happen to students and families like hers who don't know English well.

"They will not pay attention," she said of the students. "They're going to feel badly (about themselves)."

Sabastro said that she will campaign against the legislation and has been helping to collect signatures for Reyes' petition.

Reyes said that she wonders what the future holds for students like one who recently arrived in Rochester from Butar and was able to take an Advanced Placement Chemistry exam with the aid of translators. Such cases show why bilingual education works well, she said, because students retain their progress in nonlanguage subjects while they are learning English, which no one disputes is necessary.

"But we don't want them to lose their (native) language," Reyes stressed. "What's the point in becoming monolingual?"

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