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US Immigrants Join Rebellion to Topple Bilingual Education

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An immigrant from El Salvador, Miguel Alvarado wants his four children to learn English and fulfill the American dream. So far, the biggest obstacle has been the local public school.

Although the Alvarado family speaks English at home, the children were placed in bilingual classrooms where nearly all instruction is in Spanish. "I want my kids to concentrate on learning to read and write in English," protests Mr. Alvarado.

His voice is being added to a growing chorus of complaints from immigrant parents. Although criticism of bilingual education dates back to its early days in the late 1960s, the latest bilingual backlash is coming from those it is designed to serve.

As the number of "limited English proficient" students in American schools soars to nearly 3 million, the debate about how best to educate them is reaching new heights.

In February, parents of 100 students kept their children home from the Ninth Street Elementary School in Los Angeles to protest its bilingual program, where children are taught reading, writing, and arithmetic in Spanish in their first years and then eased into English. "At no place in the day are they learning to read and write in English," says parent Alice Callaghan.

In Brooklyn, N.Y., a group of 150 parents sued the state education commissioner last year, charging that their children are being held in bilingual classes too long and failing to learn English even after seven years. The case was dismissed by the state Supreme Court but is being appealed.

Nearly 30 years after federal bilingual programs were established, this grass-roots revolt is prompting a reassessment. Several states are rewriting laws to limit the number of years a student may spend in bilingual classes. Some school districts are switching to English-only instruction. And Congress decreased federal funding for bilingual education from $240 million to $178 million for 1996.

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