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English-Only Instruction in Public Schools

It's a debate that touches on cultural, economic, and educational issues. Should public schools in the U.S. teach only in English? Does such a requirement improve English learning and help children from different backgrounds intermingle? Does English-only instruction help students who are recent immigrants to be better prepared for college or employment? Or, might such policies slow the rate of English learning or even erode a student's sense of heritage?

These are complex questions that have no easy answers. This article provides a short overview of the English-only public school debate and focuses on current laws and policies. Information for consulting a lawyer is also provided below.

Visit FindLaw's School Curriculum Basics section for additional articles and resources.

The Debate over English-Only Instruction

Supporters of English-only laws argue that by allowing English-learning students to study in bilingual education programs, well-meaning schools actually do these students a disservice. The reasoning is that bilingual education programs inhibit their students' ability to learn English by allowing them to rely on their native languages in class. Proponents of English-only laws also argue that by requiring all students to learn and speak in one language, children are more likely to intermingle with each other, leading to well-rounded perspectives.

Opponents argue that it's inconclusive whether English-only instruction helps students to learn English more effectively than bilingual education programs. Supporters of bilingual programs believe that the programs meet the critical need of immigrant students for basic English instruction, and supporters further argue that putting students who speak little to no English into classes with native speakers only leads to mutual frustration. Some people question whether English-only instruction may lead some immigrant students to feel a loss of heritage.

English as the Official Language

While the federal government does not recognize an official language, roughly 30 states have passed laws designating English as the official language. A few states have gone further by requiring their public schools to teach only in English.

English-only Education Laws

The federal government sets education standards and goals through laws such as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, and it occasionally uses the threat of reduced funding to compel states to comply. However, education policy and curriculum is set at the state and local level.

Only a few states have passed English-only education laws, although there have been failed efforts in other states. For example, in 1998, California voters enacted a proposition that requires the state's schools to teach only in English and to stop providing bilingual education programs, subject to certain exceptions. Although test scores of English-learning students rose after the proposition was passed, a report submitted to the California Department of Education after five years of review stated that there was no conclusive proof that English-only instruction was the cause of the rising scores. In 2014, California's legislature passed a law to end the state's experiment with English-only instruction (schedule to take effect in 2017).

Other states that have also passed English-only education laws include Arizona in 2000 and Massachusetts in 2002. However, Colorado voters rejected an English-instruction initiative in 2006, as did Oregon voters in 2008.

Note that while English-only laws have similar purposes, there are important differences in their scope and exceptions. For example, California's law (as mentioned, amendments will take effect in 2017 that end the English-only requirement) contains vague wording that some school districts interpreted as providing wide leeway to continue bilingual education classes. California's law also provides various waivers for parents who want their child to learn in a bilingual environment. On the other hand, Arizona's law is much tighter, stating that English is the language for public school instruction and containing a provision that allows school districts to deny waiver requests for bilingual instruction, without explanation.

Consulting With an Attorney

If you live in a state that has passed or is considering passing an English-only instruction law, an attorney can help you to understand the law or bill's application and how it may affect your child. For example, an attorney can explain your options if you want your child to receive instruction in a second language, and he or she can help you to prepare a waiver petition. You can consult with an attorney who specializes in education law through FindLaw.

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