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The History of Bilingual Education in America
By Matt Boyer
European settlers arrive in America and establish local schools that speak their native language.
1839 & 1847
Ohio adopts a bilingual education law allowing German-English instruction at the parent's request. Louisiana
follows with a similar law allowing French-English education.
The treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ends the Mexican-American War, offers citizenship to Mexican now living in
The US, and grants them the right to speak and teach Spanish.
The federal government forbids Native American schools from teaching the native languages.
Superintendent William Harris establishes kindergartens in St. Louis with education in German to provide a
head start program to immigrants. He argued for bilingual education to maintain heritage and traditions.
Federal officers forcibly remove Native American children and educate them, solely in English, in boarding
school. Corporal punishment was used when the students were caught speaking native languages.
Wisconsin's Bennett Act and Illinois' Edwards Act mandated that American History, reading, writing, and
mathematics be taught in English instead of German.
Schools in St. Paul, Louisville, San Francisco, and St. Louis discontinue the use of German in public
Congress enacts the Naturalization Act that required immigrants seeking naturalization to be able to speak English.
The United States enters World War I. Anti-German sentiment sweeps the nation and many people, churches, and
schools discontinue the use of German.
By this time 34 states had laws requiring the sole use of English in public education.
John Collier and the Bureau for Indian Affairs changes the policy to allow education in Native American
languages. But the practice of teaching only English does not change for several decades.
Congress passes the National Defense Education Act to provide public and private schools with aid to
science, math, and foreign languages. It also provided aid to English as a Second Language (ESL)
Many immigrants arrive in Miami after fleeing Cuba. They set up a bilingual school system in the area.
Eventually the entire county implements a bilingual system.
Congress passes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and add Title VII to it to provide federal
funding to essential school programs including bilingual education.
The Bilingual Act of 1968 is passed to mandate and provide funding for states to implement bilingual
education programs. Many states create their own programs to further the movement.
The Supreme Court rules in Lau v. Nichols that Chinese-Americans residing in San Francisco were not
granted an equal education as stipulated under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Federal government
grants more money to provide for bilingual education for nearly seventy languages.
California passes Proposition 187 which denies children of undocumented immigrants the right to an
education. Federal Courts rule it to be unconstitutional.
California passes Proposition 227 that eliminated bilingual education and required all public schooling
to be conducted in English. Arizona passes the similar Proposition 203.
Congress creates the No Child Left Behind Act to mandate schools test students in reading and math.
It also requires teachers of bilingual programs be fluent in English and another language. Finally, it
places a three year limit on a student's participation in a bilingual program before moving to English-
The Ongoing Debate
Should a school educate according to a minority's linguistic base or only on the majority's?
Does bilingual education inhibit a student's learning of English?
What is the proper age to place a student in a bilingual program?
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