To All On Equal Terms: Bilingual Education for the 21st Century

Keynote Speech   Jill Kerper Mora
Arizona Association for Bilingual Education Conference
Phoenix, Arizona
January 25, 2002

To All on Equal Terms;

It is a great pleasure to be here with you this afternoon to speak about the challenges we face as educators in our changing world. Let me begin by thanking the conference hosts and the executive board of the Arizona Association for Bilingual Education for honoring me with an invitation to address you today. The title of my talk is To All On Equal Terms: Bilingual Education for the Twenty-first Century. Amid the clanging of plastic knives and forks and bites of carrot cake, I want to take us back in history to the 1950’s and 60’s and in particular, to the date of the famous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision and the Civil Rights era. We will also review the significance of the recent events of September 11 that also represent a turning point in our national and individual thinking about the importance of cross-cultural understanding and the dignity and sanctity of human life.

Now, I know you are wondering already why I have chosen such a heavy topic for a luncheon speech. Why have I not chosen a light trip down memory lane with some cheery anecdotes to liven up dessert and aid the digestion? It is because we are gathered here to learn and share about bilingual education, and as all of us know full well, bilingual education is under siege. We are here to gain strength from each other in our struggles for equal educational opportunities for ALL children. We come together to gain insights and information that will help us confront the criticisms and the attacks against us, both personally and professionally. And yes, this means we will laugh together and have fun and take joy in our common humanity and our courageous spirits. Let us take a moment to give ourselves and each other a big round of applause for all the hard work and perseverance that brought us together here today. We deserve it!

Revisiting Brown v. Board of Education

Why then should be revisit the Civil Rights era and the federal court decisions that changed the face of education four decades ago? It is because much of the progress we made toward educational equity and social justice has recently been reversed through the ballot initiative process, in California with Proposition 227, in Arizona with Proposition 203, and with ballot initiatives threatening to do the same in Massachusetts and Colorado. These reversals of the civil rights of language minority students in the public schools are the result of a coordinated and determined campaign to re-conceptualize the civil right to equal access to a meaningful and effective education into a new (quote-unquote) “right” to an English-only education. Together, we must examine and challenge each one of the myths, misconceptions and outright lies that are used to promote this backward progression in our struggle for equality for language minorities.

First, let us revisit those tense and anxious days in Kansas in 1954 when the parents of Linda Brown and their supporters awaited the decision of the Supreme Court in their legal challenge to secure her rights to attend the public school reserved for whites close to her home. These black Americans’ struggle to achieve an equal education for their children in the Topeka public schools culminated in the landmark decision issued by Chief Justice Earl Warren on May 17, 1954. The words of the Court addressed the vital importance of education in our democratic society, and I quote: “ In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

 “To all on equal terms.” I believe that these words embody the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement and of our struggle to protect and preserve bilingual education today. Let us examine these words and the principles they convey closely in light of the ballot initiatives curtailing students rights to be educated in their non-English native language. Let us keep in mind as we analyze equal rights to education the number of court cases that have shaped and supported the civil rights of language minorities, as well as more recent court decisions that have undermined these rights. Among the landmark decisions for the rights of language minority students areLau v. Nichols in 1974, Serna v. Portales Municipal Schools in 1972, Castañeda v. Pickard in 1981. These cases set the parameters for providing equal access to the curriculum for students with limited proficiency in English. Compare these decisions to Valeria G. v. Wilson in 1998 that allowed Proposition 227 to be implemented in California, and California Teachers Association v. Board of Education that recently upheld the constitutionality of the provision for personal liability lawsuits against educators for failure to implement English-only instruction. Also, keep in mind the latest development in the Flores case and the recently filed case of Jasmine Morales filed with the U.S. District Court for Arizona by the William E. Morris Institute for Justice. These cases have the potential for reestablishing some degree of educational equity for language minority students.

A Lawyers' Daughter

Now, I should let you all know what you are up against here. I am the daughter of two attorneys. The case of so and so versus such and such was common dinner conversation in my home growing up in Cody, Wyoming. My parents, Kerper and Kerper, practiced law in this small western town and I heard “lawyer talk” on a regular basis. I grew up with a great respect for the courts, a respect that I hope will be restored in the future when federal judges once again have the courage to challenge the damaging consequences of an excess of “majority rule” without regard to minority rights.

Equal Access to Education

The principle behind equal access to education is fundamental to the challenges that must come to Proposition 227 and Proposition 203. In order to curtail rights of access to education for language minority students and their parents, the anti-bilingual education forces have constructed a lie. The lie is that a child who speaks a language other than English when he or she comes to school is harmed by being educated in that language instead of being taught entirely in English. Let’s take a careful look at this lie. Please raise your hand if you learned how to read and write in your native language. Now, any of you who believe you were harmed by the experience of learning to read and write in your native language, raise your hand. What? No one? How many of you are biliterate? Now, how many of you believe that your biliteracy has harmed you somehow? Then how is it that the opponents of bilingual education have convinced a majority of voters that somehow Spanish speaking or Diné speaking children or other-language speakers will be harmed by learning to read and write in their native language? Raise your hand if you have seen anywhere a single shred of research evidence to support the belief that literacy in two languages is harmful to anyone.  What? No one? Obviously, this is because no such research evidence exists.

In order to buy into this argument, we must also accept several other lies. One is that Spanish and other languages are inferior to English. According to Proposition 203, knowledge of English is the key to full participation in the American Dream. If knowledge of English were in fact a guarantee that we could fulfill the American Dream, then of course there would have been no need for the Civil Rights movement. I argue that the way to fulfill the American Dream is to honor the democratic principles on which this country is founded, including, and especially, respect for the rights to equal educational opportunities for minorities.

Lessons of September 11

Let us examine carefully the concept of the inferiority of languages other than English. Along with this belief goes the closely linked theory that other cultures are also inferior. Here we begin to tread on very dangerous turf. The shocking and painful events of September 11, when thousands of lives were lost because of the hatred of extremists for another culture and way of life, is a stark reminder of the dangers inherent in cultivating antagonism and contempt for cultural differences. In the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York, we were the victims of unbridled, fanatical ethnic hatred. Should we not learn from this experience the threat that hatemongering and cultural prejudices and stereotyping pose to our civilization? The lesson of September 11 is that we must foster compassion and understanding across cultures. We must learn from these tragic events that efforts to use legal and political means to denigrate and obliterate other cultures and ways of life that in reality pose no threat to our democracy and freedom, should not be tolerated. Instead, we must honor and value our cultural and linguistic diversity as a resource for the future of our nation.

Common Sense

Take as an example an editorial that appeared yesterday in the Arizona Republic. The title of the editorial is “Common sense dictates need for speaking English” written by Carol Springer, Arizona’s Republican state treasurer who, according to the editorial page, is expected to announce her candidacy for governor soon. Ms. Springer begins her editorial with some remarkable statistics. She states that nearly 2 billion people speak English in at least 75 countries and that by 2050 it is predicted that half of the world’s population will be proficient in English.

What Ms. Springer neglects to point out based on these statistics is the number of those English speakers who are bilingual. The fact is that bilingual second language speakers of English now outnumber monolingual native English speakers around the world. Monolingual English speakers are becoming everyday more disadvantaged in the global market place. If an employer can find so many workers who speak English AND another language and therefore can communicate with people from two or three different cultures, then monolingual English speakers will be second choice. This is an important bit of “common sense” that is often overlooked in the political rhetoric surrounding language education.

State Treasurer Springer goes on in her editorial to quote chapter and verse from Proposition 203, expounding on its theory about how children can easily acquire full fluency if they are heavily exposed to English at an early age and what an inadequate job of educating immigrant students the Arizona public schools are doing. Ms. Springer neglects to inform her readers that according to the state of Arizona's own achievement data, language minority students who were receiving instruction in their native language in bilingual programs prior to passage of 203 were doing much better in their educational attainment than those students in English-only programs. She attacks the judge in the Flores case and the 2000 consent decree in addressing the rights of language minority students, speculating that state law supercedes the decisions of the federal court. Might we suggest that if Ms. Springer runs for governor, she will want to gain a better understanding of the U.S. Constitution and the concept of federalism before formulating her plan for educating language minority students.

Which brings us back to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. “To all on equal terms.” The opponents of bilingual education would have the public believe that Proposition 227 and Proposition 203 protect language minority students’ rights to an equal education. One argument that has been used against us in the campaign for these ballot initiatives is that bilingual education is a form of segregation. Do not be deceived by this line of reasoning. Remember that at the heart of the Brown decision was the principle that black Americans were being denied equal access to the public schools as a matter of law: This is called de jure segregation. Black parents were not asked if they preferred all-black schools for their children. They were not offered a choice to attend or not attend a black school or a white school based on the quality of the programs offered there. Remember that Linda Brown had to travel 22 blocks to attend the all-black school she was assigned to in spite of the fact that there was a white school only two blocks away. In other words, great obstacles were put in the way of her education, as a matter of law based on her race alone. These obstacles to education aggravated the disadvantages of poverty and de facto segregation.

Compare these terms for Linda Brown’s education with what language minority parents now face under Proposition 227 and Proposition 203 here in Arizona. These laws set up a system that thwarts and obstructs the efforts of language minority parents and their children to gain equal access to a meaningful and effective education in our public schools. The opponents of bilingual education choose to ignore the three-tiered responsibility of the public schools in educating all children. Students must not only learn language, but they must also become literate and master the academic content. Language, literacy and content learning are inextricably interwoven in the curriculum. Bilingual education is the most efficient and effective means of accomplishing all three of these educational tasks so that students can achieve academically and participate fully and equitably in the programs offered through the public schools. We have over 30 years of research findings that demonstrate the effectiveness of bilingual education in promoting academic achievement for language minority students. 

Unequal Access to the Public Schools

The provisions of the education code under 227 and 203 mandate obstacles to implementation of pedagogically sound and effective dual language instructional programs for students who are classified as limited English proficient that do not exist for the parents of children who speak English.  The parents of English-speaking children are not compelled to visit the schools and to solicit waivers to get programs that are effective for their children. Anglo parents of English speakers do not have to wait for 30 days into the school year to begin an instructional program they know to be the best for their children. They do not have to seek special permissions from school officials to get programs that they, together with their children's teachers, have decided are the best for advancing their academic learning and social development. Nor do the parents of native English-speaking children have to petition school officials to create or maintain programs with which they are satisfied that have yielded satisfactory scholastic results based on valid assessment criteria. The parents of native English speakers do not have to fear that teachers or school administrators will be sued for implementing programs and practices that make the curriculum comprehensible to their children or that promote the full utilization of the linguistic and cultural funds of knowledge they bring with them to school.

These clearly are not “equal terms” of access to education for language minority families, as attorneys for first-grader Jasmine Morales from Tucson are arguing in her case against Proposition 203.  In the 1974 Lau v. Nichols, the Supreme Court ruling states: "There is no equality of treatment by providing students with the same facilities, textbooks, teachers and curriculum, for students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education."

In California, the case of Valeria G. v. Wilson in July of 1998 denied an injunction against implementation of Proposition 227. The federal judge ruled that the voters of California had expressed their “policy preference” for English-only education for language minority students and allowed implementation of the restrictions on bilingual education to become law. Imagine for a moment what would have occurred if the voters of Kansas had expressed their “policy preference” for segregated schools before the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Consider what the outcome for our society would have been had the educational rights of black Americans been put on the ballot in the Southern states back in the 1950’s and 60’s. What may appear to be “common sense” to the majority is frequently a violation of the rights of the minority in a racially and culturally diverse society. The dominant, monolingual population has deliberately chosen to mobilize around English as a symbol in order to revive a one-nation-one-language principle. Bilingual researcher Guadalupe Valdés (1997) expresses the nature of the conflict clearly with these words…

“…policies–no matter how benevolent in intention or how naively ignorant–that treat groups of human beings unjustly are policies that ultimately violate the individual human rights of those persons who share the particular characteristics to which the policy in question does not attend. In the case of bilingual individuals…policies enacted for monolinguals by monolingual individuals inevitably deprive members of bilingual populations of essential human rights that no state can be justified in restricting or violating.”

For example, for transnational families and individuals in the Southwestern states who have close familial, social and economic ties to both Mexico and the United States, there is no practical value or incentive to become monolingual in English. To make English monolingualism or English dominance a condition for being considered a “true American” in our competitive international market place is unrealistic, and unjust. We must honor and respect parental authority and individual rights when parents choose to develop and enhance their children’s education and life opportunities through bilingual education. The “preferences” and prejudices of the majority should not be a barrier to equal access to the very best education available to language minority students.

Bilingual education is something that the minority wants, but the majority seems not to want them to have it. This is not because they want it for themselves, because for the most part, they don’t. The majority is not yet convinced that bilingualism holds any advantage, or if they do recognize its value, they simply want to make sure that the minority doesn’t have it. Since the minority benefits from bilingual education and it really does no harm to the majority for them to have it, ultimately it will be the majority that must concede on this issue. It is a question of who must give in. If the minority is made to give in, these individuals suffer a real and tangible lose that is very great. If the majority gives in, it looses nothing and gains a benefit by supporting and accommodating the minority in realizing the group and individual’s full human potential and supporting their ability to contribute socially, politically and economically in our democratic society. This is the path to fulfilling the American Dream.

Staying the Course

The task before us as bilingual educators is daunting, but we are prepared to stay the course to stop the erosion of our civil rights. We will not retreat in the face of obstacles, nor accept reversals of the progress we have made. We must use all of the resources available to us, including the federal and state courts. The judiciary is supposedly non-political, but the courts frequently look to the public mood for direction in dealing with controversial issues. The Brown v. Board of Education came about as the result of a long struggle for recognition of the rights of black Americans and acknowledgement of the high costs of discriminatory policies that denied a segment of our population equal educational opportunities and equal access to the public schools. We must learn from our history and look within us and among us for the strength, courage and wisdom to recapture the spirit of social justice and equality that are the foundation of democracy and the core of the Civil Rights Movement.

The theme of this AABE conference is Open Minds, Open Worlds. The new millennium holds great promise for our society and for our nation, but only if we rise to the challenges of a changing world with open minds. We must recognize and value the richness of our linguistic and cultural diversity for our nation’s future. We cannot turn back the clock to another day and time when our homogeneity gave us the illusion that we could survive and prosper in a world by ignoring and suppressing our differences. Laws that restrict equal access to language minority students to an appropriate, meaningful and effective public school education must be challenged and overcome. Such laws and policies do not serve us in our pursuit of a brighter future and an open world of love and friendship across languages and cultures. We must continue the struggle for equal rights for language minorities and for educational opportunity for ALL on equal terms.


Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka 347 U.S. 483 (1954)

Springer, C. (2002, January 24). Common sense dictates need for speaking English. Arizona Republic.

Valdés, G. (1997). Bilinguals and bilingualism: Language policy in an anti-immigrant age. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 127, 25-50.