Even though several school districts adopted bilingual education formally somewhere in 1960s and 1970s, the actual history of this concept in the United States began back in the colonial era wherein the Polish settlers started the first bilingual schools after they received the ‘rights of Englishmen’. The medium of instruction was English and Polish in these schools. The concept of bilingual schooling has gone through quite a few ups and downs to shape the modern education system in the country.
Bilingual Education Timeline
When European settlers began settling in North America, they opened several schools wherein the medium of instruction was their local language. The first instance of bilingual education in America came in the 17th century when the schools started by Polish immigrants included English as one of the subjects. Germans, French and other settlers followed the suit, and several schools which resorted bilingual education, though not formally, surfaced in various parts of the United States of America. While these schools did provide a platform for its development in the United States, most of them were non-English speaking schools wherein English was just one of the subjects taught.
Towards the beginning of 19th century, immigration in the United States had reached its peak, and that once again brought the bilingual education debate to the forefront with several communities pitching for the need of introducing this system in the country. In 1839, Ohio became the first state to adopt a bilingual education law and authorized German and English as the two languages of instruction. The state of Louisiana followed Ohio with its own law in 1847, and the New Mexico Territory followed the suit in 1850. While the two languages were English and French in Louisiana, the same were English and Spanish in case of New Mexico.
In 1864, the U.S. Congress passed a draconian law which prohibited Native Americans from learning in their own language as a part of the national policy of Native American assimilation. Lobbying for a legislation in favor of English or more importantly against German and other such languages, began in 1888. The World War I came as yet another hindrance for the bilingual education movement, as several states outlawed the practice of instruction in foreign languages. In 1923 though, a Supreme Court ruling declared that putting restrictions on foreign language amounts to violation of the XIV Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and thus is unconstitutional. This, and other such pro-bilingual education rulings by the Supreme Court, gave the bilingual education movement a much-needed boost.
The bilingual education debate was brought to the forefront yet again, this time by the Civil Rights Movement, wherein those in favor of this concept stressed on the importance of bilingual education to show that the prohibition of education in foreign languages would hinder the progress of non-English speaking students, which in turn hinder the progress of America as a whole. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination on the basis of color or race, in any Federally funded program and that encompassed the education system as well. In 1968, the U.S. Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act which provided school districts Federal funds to establish educational programs for non-English speaking students. Yet another milestone in the history of bilingual education came in 1974, when the Supreme Court ruling declared that a school teaching minority students as ‘other students’ was a violation of the rights of these students. In 1979, the Federal administration expenditure on bilingual education $150 million which was significant rise from $7.5 million in 1969.
In 2001, the Bilingual Education Act was replaced by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) which stressed on English acquisition, while putting native-language instruction at the sidelines. This rekindled the bilingual education debate yet once again, thus leaving the entire nation divided into two. The first group believes that bilingual education is a necessity for the development of those who are not well-versed with English as well as the nation, whereas the second group is of the opinion that it is a threat to the national unity. While the efforts put in by those who were in support of bilingual schooling did pave the way for development of this concept in the United States, the battle is far from over. And that makes it all the more important for those in support of bilingual education system to hold ground.