Edgard Garrido / Reuters

The Intrusion of White Families Into Bilingual Schools

In December, Conor Williams asked whether the growing demand for multilingual early-childhood programs might push out the students these programs were designed to serve.


Conor Williams’s insightful piece on dual-language learning, “The Intrusion of White Families Into Bilingual Schools,” acknowledges the impact of rapidly changing demographics on many bilingual schools in Washington, D.C. Yet by pointing the finger at one category of parents, attention is diverted from the real issue: We are slicing a cake that is too small. If a fraction of the resources thrown at STEM over the last decade, for example, were thrown at bilingual education, we could make multilingualism an integral part of our education system and correct most of the current inequities.

In addition to the intelligent policies mentioned by Williams about where to plop these programs, we need to do a better job at educating all families and the educators themselves. As the FrameWorks Institute points out in its study “When More Means Less,” there are big gaps between expert and public understandings of dual-language education.

In Washington, as in many other places in the U.S., some educators with the best of intentions scold Latino parents for speaking to their children in Spanish, and first-generation immigrant parents believe that their children will be at a disadvantage in a dual-language program and therefore enroll them elsewhere. It’s not only that the cake is too small, it’s also that no one bothers telling people how good it is in a language they can understand, which leaves better informed, English-speaking parents claiming the bigger slices.

We must also acknowledge that all children benefit from bilingual education, regardless of the language spoken at home. Therefore, framing this discussion as white gentrifiers versus Hispanic/Latino families puts children of other ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses at an even greater disadvantage. Should black children in poor neighborhoods where there are no Spanish speakers not have access to the same cognitive and economic opportunities that bilingualism brings? Will these programs be harder to implement there than in neighborhoods where there are native language speakers? Yes. Does that change the answer to the first question?

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With a bold plan for bilingual education for all, we can build a more desirable and linguistically and culturally competent workforce—and a more equitable society. Without meaningful, strategic investments, both in Washington, D.C., and nationally, we will continue to face the challenges of how to equitably slice a cake that is far too small.

Vanessa Bertelli
Executive Director, D.C. Language Immersion Project
Washington, D.C.

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