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Politics pervades the bilingual-education issue. Both poles in the debate claim a common goal: helping immigrant children master English and gain success in their new country. But the question of how best to achieve that end makes for a fierce, divisive debate. Advocates of bilingual instruction say that nurturing a new student's cultural and linguistic heritage promotes greater self-esteem and a steady adaptation to the new language and culture. Giving immigrant students a ``positive self-image'' is the primary goal of the Bellagio Newcomer School in Los Angeles, says principal Juliette Thompson. ``If they have that, they will be able to go on and succeed.''

Critics counter that the best way to help non-English-speaking students is to concentrate on teaching them English as quickly as possible. ``Success doesn't come from self-esteem, self-esteem comes from success,'' says Barbara Caze of U.S. English in Los Angeles.

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On the federal level, bilingual education has gained some influential political allies. Under President Reagan's administration, Secretary of Education William J. Bennett spoke out against the practice. But President Bush and Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos are firm believers in the validity of instruction in a student's native language.

The Bush administration appointed Rita Esquivel, a staunch supporter of primary-language instruction, as director of the Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs. Although the government supports bilingual education, ``methodology is up to the individual school district,'' Ms. Esquivel says.

The federal government funds 10 percent of the bilingual programs in the United States. ``Under Secretary Cavazos and President Bush,'' Esquivel says, ``we are having a very positive round right now in the teaching of English to language-minority children.''

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