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Chinese Sponsorship of Language Classes Sparks Debate

Is it appropriate for the Chinese government to pay for Chinese-language instruction in U.S. public schools? That question has sparked some debate in a California community, reports the Los Angeles Times.

In January, the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District board voted 4-1 to adopt a new Chinese-language and -culture class at Cedarlane Middle School, at no cost to the district. It's being paid for by the Chinese government's Chinese Language Council International, also known as Hanban, the story says.

"I am not against the teaching of foreign languages, but this is a propaganda machine from the People's Republic of China that has no place anywhere in the United States," said John Kramer, a former superintendent for the district who has been vocal in the debate, the Times reports.

The issue has drawn the attention of a prominent national education expert, Chester E. Finn Jr., from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (and a former education official in the Reagan administration). In a blog post yesterday, he sharply criticized the move.

"Though one tiny corner of my conscience says sure, the more the Chinese spend IN the United States, the less they'll have to compete with and undermine us," he writes. "But most of me is outraged, and a little bit alarmed."

He says it's not unusual for nations to "propagate their language" in other countries, citing as examples work by the Alliance Francaise for France and the Goethe Institute for Germany. At the same time, "to my knowledge, however, they do these things after school, on weekends, at night, and usually for adults, not 'compulsory' students."

But others say the concern is unwarranted.

"A lot of people are saying it's a way for the Chinese people to brainwash our students. They are really misinformed," the Times quotes Jay Chen, a vice president of the Hacienda La Puenta board as saying. "From Oregon to Rhode Island, public schools have implemented the same program. As far as I can see, nothing sinister is going on."

The Times story says China created the Confucius Institute in 2004 to promote Chinese language and culture at the university level. And last year, Hanban expanded the idea, launching the Confucius Classroom to focus on K-12 education. There are currently about 200 Confucius Classrooms, the story says.

People worried in 2004 when the Confucius Institute was launched, the story quotes Susan Pertel Jain, the executive director of the UCLA Confucius Institute, as saying. "Everybody was concerned we would be told what to do, what to teach. That's not the situation at all. It's very much a partnership," she said of the UCLA program, which began in 2007.

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