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No Child Left Behind and Bilingual Education

In 1965, Congress enacted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a law that provides the federal government with the authority to fund public schools (and with that authority, the ability to influence education goals and policy). Three years later, Congress added a new provision to that law, an amendment referred to as the Bilingual Education Act ("BEA"). The BEA was passed during the Civil Rights Movement, and it was the first federal law passed specifically to address the needs of English-learning K-12 students.

This article provides a short overview of the BEA and discusses how the No Child Left Behind Act affects bilingual education in the U.S. Information for consulting with an attorney is also provided below.

The BEA's Key Provisions

Several states began experimenting with bilingual education programs in the mid 1960s, and Congress enacted the BEA in 1968. It was viewed as one of the most important developments during the movement for equal rights and, practically speaking, as a way to assist the increasing number of Asian and Latin American immigrants following the 1965 repeal of the "national-origin system."

The BEA has been amended five times since its passage. Until 2001, when the No Child Left Behind Act was enacted, the BEA's key provisions have included:

  • Emphasizing the goal of preparing English-learning students for regular classroom instruction while maintaining their native languages and cultures
  • Committing the federal government to supporting state bilingual education programs
  • Providing grants to states or school districts that adopt promising, innovative policies to assist English-learning students to attain fluency
  • Permitting funding to be used for English-speaking students to enroll in "immersion" and other bilingual education programs
  • Creating fellowship programs for teachers to learn the most effective methods for assisting bilingual or English-learning students

The No Child Left Behind Act

In 2001, Congress passed a law known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). This law significantly amended the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the BEA, even going so far as to completely remove the word "bilingual" and to rename the BEA the English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement Act (this article will continue to refer to that provision as the "BEA").

The NCLB requires the states to implement standardized testing in several K-12 grades as a condition of receiving federal funding. Test scores must be reported and published and schools that consistently underperform or fail to improve sufficiently face sanctions that can include teacher and staff replacement.

The NCLB's Effects on Bilingual Education

As the name change to the BEA implies, the NCLB drastically altered the federal government's approach to bilingual education. Rather than the prior focus on maintaining an immigrant student's culture and native language, the NCLB emphasizes English-language instruction and the goal of assimilation into regular classrooms as quickly as possible.

In most circumstances, the NCLB allows for a maximum three-year transition period for English-learning students to be placed in classes with native English speakers. Because of the NCLB's emphasis on standardized testing as a means of determining performance, and because English-learning students must take the same standardized tests as other students, schools with many immigrant students may face a disadvantage.

Some NCLB critics also argue that the focus away from bilingual education harms the ability of immigrant and native-born students to develop mutual cultural understanding, and critics further believe that the NCLB's use of sanctions against low-performing schools unfairly targets those schools with high numbers of English-learning and/or low-income students. On the other hand, supporters of the NCLB point out that the requirement that student test scores be broken down and reported by categories including ethnic group and family income level provides valuable information to states and school boards concerning how to effectively direct resources.

Although the NCLB's provisions mostly remain in effect (the law expired in 2007, but it stays on the books until a replacement law is passed), there are efforts to pass a new amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to address the NCLB's many perceived shortcomings.

How an Attorney Can Help

If you have questions about bilingual education, such as questions about how the NCLB affects bilingual education programs in your state, an attorney can help. You can consult with an education law attorney through FindLaw.


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