Power  /  Antecedent

Helping Latino Kids Succeed in the Classroom Doesn’t Have to be an Ideological War

Conservatives backed bilingual education until it became a progressive cause.
Mario Villafuerte/Getty Images

Innovative as bilingual-bicultural education programs were in this era, many of these programs were also deeply assimilationist. As one program mission announced, Spanish would only be used to “effect a natural and effective fusion with the school and the American heritage it perpetuates.” The most widespread English as a Second Language (ESL) approach involved no effort to maintain the native language or culture. Radically progressive programs that taught Spanish and celebrated Mexican-American culture rarely gained sustained support from liberals or conservatives.

Yet bipartisan support for even this basic appreciation of the value of the Spanish language and Latino culture to school and society was fleeting.

What happened? In short, 1968. On the first business day of the year, President Lyndon Johnson signed the federal Bilingual Education Act into law. The first federal recognition of linguistic minorities, it was a watershed for Latino advocates who had been laboring at the district, city and state levels.

But since the act was sparsely funded and philosophically moderate, the victory was largely symbolic. Conservatives, increasingly vocal about their disgust with what they perceived as the overreach of the Great Society, now associated bilingual education with a big federal government that spent lavishly on programs that benefited minorities.

Weeks later, hundreds of high school students walked out of their East Los Angeles high schools, protesting the lack of bilingual education, the tiny number of minority administrators and prejudice toward Latino and black students. Holding signs declaring “Viva la Revolución!” these politicized teenagers amazed bystanders. “This is BC and AD. You know the schools will not be the same hereafter,” the superintendent told another onlooker. Sure enough, Latino advocates for educational justice united their struggle with the growing antiwar and Black Power movements.

To conservative bystanders, this was a disastrous turn — and a dealbreaker.