In Forked Tongue, her important new public policy study-cum-expose whose proposals seem as likely to create new problems as to solve some old ones, Rosalie Pedalino Porter doesn’t get down to root causes. That is, she nowhere notes that when activist judges create new opportunities for turf-hungry bureaucrats the result is similar to what it is in this case: a scam peddled under the studiously falsified label of Transitional Bilingual Education.

TBE is something that was developed to comply with a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court mandate requiring school districts receiving federal funds to provide special instruction to help immigrant children learn English as quickly as possible—another of those “rights” the justices have claimed to detect lurking in some “penumbra” befogging our Constitution.

But, if you can, lay aside for the time being Constitutional considerations. What flags you to question Rosalie Porter’s tacit presumption of a need for TBE in the first place is the acknowledgement by this daughter of Italian immigrants that she herself received no special help in acquiring the idiomatic English that fills her pages: she learned it in a first-grade classroom in New Jersey, by the old sink-or-swim method by which so many millions of other non-Anglophone children were plunged into all-English classrooms and were quickly acculturated to America. (Pardon me for wondering what’s wrong with something that swam so well, without courts and the special outlays now totaling over $1 billion each year.) In any case, Transitional Bilingual Education is supposed to provide non-Anglophones with classroom instruction both in their native language and in English, the mother tongue being gradually phased out over three years as their English is perfected. Today it enrolls children speaking 145 different tongues, predominantly the Spanish one.

In practice, Porter shows, these children are exposed to as little English as possible—in order to prolong their time in the TBE programs. The scandal is that youngsters who can’t make change in English are made to concentrate endlessly on things like Caribbean folklore presented in Spanish. Never mind that students not acquiring English tend to become early dropouts and soon find themselves on welfare rolls and in jail in alarming numbers; and overlook the impressive numbers of immigrant (mainly Asian) parents who move out of school districts where the bilingual programs are in place in order to assure that their children learn English. Forget about, for that matter, a survey released (after Forked Tongue appeared) in August by the Institute on English Acquisition and Research. It shows that just 10.1 percent of Spanish-speakers in America list perfection of Spanish among the three most important goals they cherish for their children’s education. And only a minuscule 0.6 percent say they want schools to transmit their ethnic heritage to their offspring.

So what energizes a program that nobody wants? Actually, a few do want it. Porter documents that the bilingual powers-that-be in the teacher colleges and state education departments (mostly Hispanics, it happens, who make no effort to conceal their habit of barring gringos from their field) also happen to be chauvinistic ideologues determined to keep children out of the Anglo mainstream. Their practice of expanding the TBE rolls by deliberately retarding students likewise expands the cash, scholarships, and jobs these self-servers dispense. So they take pains to keep the bilingual curricula both radical and impractical. And they’re careful to restrict certification to teach in the bilingual classrooms to their (often scandalously incompetent) protégés. It’s nice work if you can get it, and if you’re totally without scruples.

Since Spanish happens to be Porter’s own specialty, she has an inside track for going after this gang. Her common sense conclusions, acquired by hands-on experience and (as we learn in chapters three through five) the voluminous research she has mastered on bilingual education in the United States and abroad, confirm this: to assure rapid acquisition of a foreign language, you give non-speakers all you can of that tongue, and in a hurry. (Pardon me again, but doesn’t this resemble sink-or-swim?)

In the Bilingual and English as a Second Language Program she directs in Newton, Massachusetts, for example. Porter’s students are immersed in English. Quickly mastering it, they are routed into regular classes, where they subsequently tend to become able students and even show a percentage of college enrollment that exceeds the national average. Another result is that students receiving intensive foreign-language immersion lose nothing whatever of proficiency in their native tongue, thus exploding one of the biggest arguments used by the ideologues to attack Porter’s method.

Rosalie Porter holds a doctorate in her field and worked for a time in William Bennett’s Department of Education. She appears, moreover, to be among those legions of liberals who have of late been partially mugged by realities liberalism has generated. In her case the mugging was perpetrated by doctrinaires in the Massachusetts Department of Education trying to protect their stranglehold on TBE, first by attempting to block the awarding of the advanced degree Porter had earned, and later by issuing a transparently doctored audit branding her program at Newton a failure. The latter move enabled this gang to cut off (temporarily) her state funding. It was unwise of them. The lady has fought back ever since, exposing the bilingual bosses in Massachusetts and across America for the false educators they are. Forked Tongue is designed, among other things, to smite them hip and thigh. They deserve it. To her enemies. Porter’s unpardonable sin has been to help children learn English.

But the writer’s determination to appear everywhere moderate and practical ought not to lull the reader into imagining she is the nonideological creature she presents herself to :be. This warm, earnest Rosalie Porter emerges from her pages as your oldfashioned statist: anti-radical to be sure, but a statist all the same. One, for instance, who doesn’t hesitate—in the latter part of her book, where she aspires to philosophy—to invoke the authority of old Horace Mann, John Dewey, Gunnar Myrdal, and allied social engineers; and to put forward a vision for education that would lead America towards democracy and equality—very different from the Framers’ ideals of republicanism and freedom.

Finally, Porter’s position on initiatives to establish English as our official language is . . . forked. Early in the book she attacks proponents of this proposal with the usual left-of-center aspersions; then, in chapter seven, she in effect acknowledges that an English-as-the-official-language amendment would square with her own anti-radical position. After having said this. Porter turns around and again tars its backers—thus, I take it, reassuring her friends she’s still one of them.


Forked Tongue: The Politics of Bilingual Education, by Rosalie Pedalino Porter (New York: Basic Books) 285 pp., $22.95