For millions of Americans, poor English language skills resulted in lost opportunities for higher education, better employment and higher wages, according to a study by the Lexington Institute. Enclaves of isolated non-English speakers live in poverty, while employers struggle to find qualified applicants capable of interacting with coworkers and customers, causing an estimated $65 billion reduction to the nation’s gross domestic product.
In answer to President Obama’s call for investing in a skilled workforce for the future, Rep. Steve King, (R-Iowa), is pressing legislation to declare English the official language of the United States and efforts to scrap multilingual education in favor of English immersion programs in schools and the workplace.
Don Soifer, the institute’s vice president and educational policy researcher, authored the Lexington study which concentrates primarily on the Latino population, He said that despite the multi-millions of dollars spent by the federal and state governments to teach English to non-English speakers, there has been a “broad economic failure by the educational system.”
The National Assessment of Educational Progress test results, often called the Nation’s Report Card, show that multi-lingual education students scored “below basic,” the test’s lowest level of achievement, at three times the rate of English proficient students. Those with the lowest scores had a 72 percent dropout rate. In the case of California, the majority of 10th grade students have been in the public school system since the 1st grade, were still not rated proficient in English, and had higher dropout rates. The study showed that less than 10 percent of the students in multilingual education programs ever reach a proficient level.
“Clearly, these programs are not getting the job done,” Soifer said. “This is not about spending more or less money on education. It is about effective methods for teaching English.”
Students participating in English immersion programs showed rapid improvement in their language skills and are more likely to graduate from high school and go on to higher education and better pay in the job market.
Soifer said that if students’ scores were improved to an average level of proficiency it would increase the GDP by $425 to $700 billion, an economic benefit to both the students and the country.
Attempts during the previous congressional session to declare English the official language of the country at all levels of government were held up in committee and blocked from going to a floor vote by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, (D-Calif.).
“The United States is the only nation in the world without one official language,” King said. “We need to break out of this isolation that holds people back. Its common sense and we have to commit ourselves to this.”
This session, King reintroduced H.R.997 with bipartisan support from 153 members of the House. He said “the battle is on” to get this bill passed, along with other proposed legislation protecting employers’ rights to declare English the language of their workplace, eliminate bilingual ballots and rescind the multilingual mandates of an executive order issued by President Bill Clinton. King said passage of the bill strengthens the nation both culturally and economically by bringing people together under one language, promoting greater understanding across cultures and eliminating suspicions caused by the isolation of being unable to communicate clearly.
K.C. McAlpin, executive director of The ProEnglish Advocate, cited a national poll finding that 87 percent of American voters support declaring English the language of the country. He said that multilingual education in public schools is a costly experiment that has failed and should be abandoned in favor of increased access to English immersion methods.
U.S. Census data and Urban Institute population estimates indicated that in 2004 there were approximately 5.8 million legal, permanent residents in the U.S. who need to attain English proficiency. Soifer said that number is now closer to 11 million with an estimated 5 million currently in attending elementary schools. The Lexington study found that only one-in-four non-English speakers in the U.S. are foreign born, causing widespread pockets of linguistic isolation. A linguistically isolated family is one with children up to 14 years of age in a household where no one is proficient with the English language, often stretching across three, and even four, generations.
McAlpin said Oklahoma’s state legislature is considering an English language bill, which if passed, will make it the 31st state to declare English as its official language, but in the past month, the U.S. Department of Justice threatened to sue the state if the bill passes and multilingual services are no longer offered.
In two landmark cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed the right of the states to declare English their official language, but that has not stopped the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from threatening to sue employers who do so. When the EEOC went after the Salvation Army in 2007 for enforcing its English-on-the-job rules, the Christian charity dug in its heels and insisted on taking the case before a judge. The EEOC dropped the lawsuit and abandoned claims for back pay and punitive damages for two SA employees who were terminated.
McAlpin said that educating children has been left in the hands of the states with federal funding, but more needs to be done to get business involved in promoting language improvement in the workplace on a national level.
“We encourage people to maintain their culture and language, but we should stop removing incentives for them to learn English,” McAlpin said.
The Lexington Institute study is available on their website at www.lexingtoninstitute.org.