RICHARDSON â€“ Maggie Cox sits surrounded by her students and flips through flashcards with letters and pictures. The children are as old as 10. Ms. Cox is teaching them English from scratch.
"We take them where they are," said Ms. Cox, whose class at Northlake Elementary School includes five Sudanese children. They speak only Arabic. Others in the school speak only Spanish. "Just like a baby learning to speak, we use lots of pictures. We act out stories. The Sudanese are acting out the Three Little Pigs.
"They'll progress by recognizing letters and sounds."
The students are among about 5,700 in Richardson schools who have limited English skills. About 1,800 speak predominantly Spanish and are taught in bilingual classes. More than 3,900 speak some other language â€“ the district has immigrants from 47 countries â€“ and are placed in classes such as Ms. Cox's.
Dr. Terri Greene, Richardson's coordinating director of language and literacy, said such classes are far better than the alternative â€“ immersing the students in English-only classrooms with English-speaking students.
"Bilingual education is the fastest way to teach English because you build on that prior knowledge in their language," Dr. Greene said.
While Californians debate the results of their 1998 decision to outlaw bilingual education and Arizona voters consider a similar ballot proposal in November, most officials and educators in Texas seem to agree with Dr. Greene that bilingual programs, if not perfect, are the preferred path to helping students overcome language barriers.
"I've not heard a hue and cry that there is dissatisfaction with the way Texas approaches bilingual education," said state Sen. Teel Bivens, R-Amarillo, who as chairman of the Senate education committee is among a few legislative gatekeepers for education measures. "I don't anticipate radical change in Texas."
Mr. Bivens and state education officials said Texas hasn't reconsidered its position on bilingual education because, especially in recent years, minorities have closed the performance gap between themselves and white students on standardized tests.
"All I really have to go on is the objective evidence, and blacks and Hispanics have been closing the achievement gaps in Texas and nationally," Mr. Bivens said. "As long as we're continuing to narrow the gap, I think we need to stay the course."
Under a state law adopted in 1981, bilingual education must be provided in any district where 20 or more students in one grade level cannot speak English. The law came after a federal judge, acting in response to a 1975 lawsuit filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, ordered the state to offer bilingual education.
Bilingual classes are taught both in a child's native language â€“ largely Spanish â€“ and in English. The state also requires districts to provide English as a Second Language (ESL) for students who speak neither Spanish nor English. Students in ESL classes are taught in English only, but teachers such as Ms. Cox use symbols or visual aids.
Parents in Texas also may request â€“ more than 50,000 do â€“ that their children be put into English-only classes if they disagree with the bilingual philosophy.
With Proposition 227, Californians opted for a system of English "immersion," in which most students are instructed entirely in English and moved into mainstream classes as soon as possible. Supporters say improved test scores since bilingual education was abolished show that immersion is working. Opponents, however, say that other reform measures, such as reducing class sizes, and students' familiarity with standardized tests could easily account for the improved scores.Next month, Arizona voters will decide on Proposition 203, which would replace bilingual education with a one-year English immersion program effective next year.
View from California
Supporters of measures in both states argue that bilingual instruction slows academic progress and ultimately limits students' ability to learn English.
Ron Unz, a software entrepreneur who led California's efforts to dump bilingual education, cites his mother's experience learning English through immersion as evidence of its effectiveness. His mother, who spoke Yiddish as a child in Los Angeles, picked up English in school on her own, he said.
"I've been very skeptical of bilingual education for years," Mr. Unz said. "It didn't seem to work."
Delia Pompa, executive director of the National Association of Bilingual Education in Washington, D.C., said politics muddled the issue in California. She added that supporters of Proposition 227 "played on immigration fears."
"Abolishing any approach to teaching is a pedagogical mistake," Ms. Pompa said. "From a purely educational point of view, it's a mistake."
Ms. Pompa praised Texas' decision to stand pat on bilingual education.
"I think Texas did it right from the beginning," Ms. Pompa said. "They had a lot of strong leaders who conceptualized the law very clearly. Bilingual law was formed very clearly. Bilingual educators were at the table."
Bilingual education in Texas has evolved over several decades, according to the Texas Education Agency. The state's experience in the field dates to at least 1959, when several South Texas school districts adopted programs to improve the language skills of preschoolers.
In 1964, Laredo and San Antonio districts added bilingual education in elementary schools. In 1969, the state abolished an "English only" statute that had been on the books since 1918 and passed a nonbinding law allowing schools to start bilingual programs. The same law acknowledged that teaching in a child's native language made learning easier.
The state enacted broader legislation in 1973 that required bilingual education for childen in elementary schools. The 1981 law brought bilingual education to all limited-English students.
This year, about 555,000 of the state's 4 million schoolchildren are classified as limited in English proficiency, according to the TEA. More than 496,000 of them are in bilingual or ESL programs. The remainder, the state says, are in mainstream classes by their parents' choice.
Students typically are in bilingual classes for two or three years before graduating to mainstream classes. In Dallas schools, nearly a third of the district's 160,000 children are in bilingual or ESL classes, the TEA said.
Mr. Unz, the immersion proponent, said the large number of Spanish speakers in Texas should make officials consider switching from bilingual education.
"One thing I was shocked at in Texas is the number of children who they say don't speak English," he said. "What amazes me is that they were quoting that number and defending bilingual education."
Maria Seidner, director of bilingual education for the TEA, said the current method is working. As evidence, she points to Hispanic passing rates on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills.
Thirty-nine percent of Hispanics who took the TAAS in 1994 passed the reading, writing and math portions. This year, 72 percent passed all three sections.
Ms. Seidner said the state doesn't track scores of students currently or formerly enrolled in bilingual classes. According to state rules, limited-English students may be exempted from taking the TAAS for only one year.
Even though TAAS scores also were up dramatically for whites (23 percent) and blacks (36 percent) during the same time period, Ms. Seidner said the numbers show that Hispanics are excelling at a similar pace.
"I really like the way our state is approaching these kids," Ms. Seidner said. "The bottom line is, you've got to get these kids to learn English. It's working."
Texans, from the Legislature on down, seem satisfied to continue the program. In a 1998 Texas Poll, 74 percent of respondents said they agree with some form of bilingual education. Only 24 percent said students should be taught only in English.
Some bills have been filed in previous legislative sessions to curtail or end bilingual education, but none gathered much support.
State Rep. Dora Olivo, D-Rosenberg, said the only likely action on bilingual education next year will be minor tinkering. For instance, she said, the next Legislature might consider changing the rules governing exemptions for the TAAS.
"We need to look at that very carefully to make sure the laws aren't burdensome for the schools," said Ms. Olivo, a member of the House Mexican-American Caucus and chairwoman of the group's education committee.
One of the biggest problems plaguing bilingual education is a growing shortage of teachers in the field. The TEA says the state is short 5,600 certified bilingual teachers. Schools that don't have enough qualified teachers may receive state waivers that allow some students to be placed in ESL classes with teachers who speak only English.
The Dallas Independent School District, which is more than 50 percent Hispanic, has nearly 2,000 ESL and bilingual teachers. The district has about 20 vacancies, officials said.
"The main issue for a lot of areas in the state is the shortage," said Arlington school Superintendent Mac Bernd, whose district employs a full staff of 141 bilingual and ESL teachers. "The shortage is going to drive a lot of districts to English as a Second Language simply because we are going to have to deploy teachers carefully."
Dr. Bernd, who led two school districts in Southern California, said the bilingual debate in Texas might flare up after California's experiment with immersion has a longer track record.
"When we look at a four- or five-year history in California, it may change people's thinking," Dr. Bernd said. "I think it's too soon to tell. But one of the problems we have with this whole debate is because of the fact that this has become so politicized."