Commentary: English-Only Laws Don’t Work, and Bush Knows It

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson, New America Media
Tuesday May 23, 2006

In September 1999, then-Texas Gov. George Bush told an audience during the New Hampshire presidential primary, “English-only would mean to people, ‘Me, not you.’” The few times during his White House tenure Bush has seen moves to restrict the use of non-English languages by government agencies, the president didn’t budge from that position. 

However, when House and Senate Republicans pounded Bush recently for championing a non-punitive immigration reform measure he slightly backpedaled, supporting the Senate’s tough English-only amendment and a competing amendment that simply touts English. The Senate’s English-only amendments are at best empty symbolism, and at worst, a xenophobic, race-tinged tact that could imperil programs that genuinely help non-English students and adults attain English proficiency. 

Bush knows that. As Texas governor, he enthusiastically backed bilingual education, and for a good reason. It is the quickest path for non-English speaking immigrants to assimilate and ultimately attain citizenship. 

If Congress’ English-only amendment stands, it would undermine that effort. But it wouldn’t be the first time that a shortsighted Congress shot itself in the foot on the issue. In 1996, the House passed an English-only bill. The following year, Arizona Sen. John McCain proposed a “non-binding” Senate resolution endorsing English plus. The House has proposed amendments and even legislation over the years to dump or severely curtail funding for bilingual education. 

The English-only drive got a rocket boost in 1998 when businessman Ron Unz dumped millions into the campaign to pass Proposition 227 in California. The initiative’s premise was simple: bilingual education was costly, wasteful and ineffectual, and non-English speaking students, mainly Hispanics, didn’t learn a lick of English in bilingual classes. Some charged that the programs were a sneaky way to promote multiculturalism. 

The proposition drastically slashed funding for bilingual education programs. English-only proponents boasted that students would learn English in a year or less if they simply spoke it. The proposition passed by a landslide. English-only quickly became the national rage. 

In the next few years, English-only groups soon popped up in dozens of states. They subtly played on the public fear that hordes of mostly poor, non-white, foreign-born immigrants were out to subvert English-speaking values and civilization. Voters and state legislators in 27 states bought the English-only pitch, and enacted statues that specified English as the official language. 

But four years after Proposition 227 ignited the English-only firestorm, educators took a closer look at the proposition to see if it magically transformed non-English speaking students into proficient English speakers. They used language census figures from the California Department of Education. The results were dismal. Less than half of non-English speaking students enrolled in English immersion programs had attained proficiency in English. 

There was no tangible evidence that English immersion programs improved English skills of students faster or more effectively than students in bilingual education courses. Many parents demanded waivers to enroll their children in bilingual programs. By 2003, more than 100,000 students in California were taking bilingual classes. 

Meanwhile, nearly a half-million limited English speaking students were not “mainstreamed” into English programs. That meant they received no special help in learning English, and consequently their English language skills remained poor to non-existent. 

The failure of the English only approach to deliver a new generation of flawless English-speaking students was no surprise. A decade earlier, a federal study to determine whether bilingual education helped or hindered the attainment of English proficiency concluded that bilingual education was not the losing proposition that English-only advocates claimed. 

It found that well-funded and properly implemented programs enabled students with limited English to catch up to their English-fluent counterparts at a faster rate. It also found that it took students nearly five years to fully master English, not the one year that English-only backers claimed would be needed for immersion programs. 

The English-only amendment fuels the racially tinged myth that immigrants don’t want to learn English. The gargantuan waiting lists for enrollment in adult English classes at schools and community centers shatter that myth. Still, passage of an English-only amendment in the immigration bill could embolden state legislators to further slash programs that help limited English speaking students. 

The Bush administration has walked a fine line on the issue of bilingual education. It has not slashed federal funding for these programs. But it also has not increased funding for them in the past five years, even though the demand for the programs is greater than ever. 

Some senators recognized the mischief that an English-only amendment could cause. Buried in the Senate’s counter-amendment that declared English a “common and unifying language” is a pledge not to cut federal aid for bilingual services and programs. 

Bush has repeatedly said that speaking English is the fast track to citizenship. State-imposed English-only laws won’t speed anyone along that track. A federal English-only amendment won’t either. 


Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an associate editor at New America Media and the author of The Crisis in Black and Black”(Middle Passage Press). TheHutchinsonReport blog is now at