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Wisconsin Bill Would Require Schools Accepting Vouchers to Provide Bilingual Education

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June 5 UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: In a phone conversation with me today, Andy Janssen, chief of staff for Wisconsin Rep. Pedro Colon, said that Colon does not (as I suggest in my comments in this blog entry) intend to require anything of voucher schools that isn't required of public schools in Wisconsin. Colon wants voucher schools to provide a "bilingual-bicultural education program" for English-language learners. Wisconsin law requires public schools to offer a "bilingual-bicultural education program" as well. But Janssen acknowledges that Wisconsin law requires schools to offer a language program that is appropriate for ELLs, not necessarily one that includes native-language instruction. Likewise, according to Janssen, Colon is not saying that voucher schools should be required to provide native-language instruction, as the Associated Press and Wisconsin papers reported, but rather that they should have to provide something for ELLs that is similar to what the Wisconsin statute requires of public schools.

Original Blog Entry Starts Here: It hasn't been voted on yet by the Wisconsin legislature, but a budget bill approved by the legislature's Joint Finance Committee includes a provision that voucher schools in Milwaukee must provide bilingual education if more than 10 percent of a school's students have limited proficiency in English, according to the Associated Press. (Update: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has additional details.)

Rep. Pedro Colon, a Democrat, pushed for the rule to be inserted into the budget bill because, he says in the article, he felt it would help students learn English more quickly. A couple of directors of private schools that enroll students with vouchers said they oppose the idea. They don't think a switch from teaching only English to teaching bilingual education makes good sense for their schools from an educational point of view.

Reviews of research on English-language learners show a modest advantage of bilingual education over English-only methods in teaching literacy, but many experts in the field say that the quality of implementation of a program for ELLs is every bit as important as what kind of approach schools use.

I would be surprised if this requirement for voucher schools to provide bilingual education goes through because the trend across the country has been for states to lift mandates for schools to provide bilingual education.

Plus, in Wisconsin, even the public schools aren't required to provide bilingual education, so it seems like opponents of the proposed rule will make the argument that voucher schools shouldn't have to adhere to a mandate that isn't imposed on their public peers.

I'll keep you posted.

Update: An opinion published in the Wall Street Journal today says the bilingual rule for voucher schools "would force schools to offer expensive bilingual programs that suck up scarce resources and are spurned by most immigrant parents who want their children taught in English."

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Here's my take on this, and I'd be interested in whether or not others agree:

The requirement that choice schools with an enrollment of more than 10% limited-English proficient pupils “have a bilingual-bicultural education program” should be interpreted as directing schools to articulate how they are cultivating a teaching and learning environment that responds to the linguistically diverse students in their school community. It is broadly defined in the Wisconsin State Statute: “’Bilingual-bicultural education program’ means a program designed to improve the comprehension and the speaking, reading and writing ability of a limited-English proficient pupil in the English language, so that the pupil will be able to perform ordinary classwork in English.” (Wis. Stat. 115.955(2)). It is a general request and does not specify a certain model of educational service delivery (e.g., English immersion, transitional bilingual, or two-way immersion).
Regardless of the model they use, schools serving linguistically diverse populations can be engaged in specific activities that constitute “a bilingual-bicultural education program.” Some components to such a program might include:
1) Cultivating the expertise of teachers working with students for whom English is not their first language
2) Hiring personnel (such as bilingual resource specialists) to work with linguistically diverse students and their families

3) Assessing the English proficiency of students
4) Conducting equity audits of educational outcomes for linguistically diverse students (e.g., Disaggregating data on such factors as educational attainment, attendance, participation, discipline, and family engagement can allow schools to identify if students who are ELL are disproportionately represented in any areas)
5) Engaging linguistically diverse families (e.g., formally inquire about the home language of students can then provide the appropriate strategies to communicate with these families through written materials and in conferences, home-school liaison personnel and home-visits)

In other words, schools “have a bilingual-bicultural education program” when they can articulate how they respond to the linguistically diverse students in their school community.

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