U.S. Bilingual Education Funds Ruled Out for Ebonics Speakers
By John F. Harris
The Clinton administration declared yesterday that "black English" is a form of slang that does not belong in the classroom, and ruled that school districts that recognize the idiom in their teaching cannot do so with federal funds targeted for bilingual education.
The Oakland, Calif., school board last week revived a long-brewing linguistic controversy with a unanimous vote declaring that black English, also known as Ebonics, is not merely a dialect but a language, rooted in a distinct African American culture. Students who speak it, the board said, should not be criticized or harshly corrected but given special assistance learning standard English in much the same way as a student who moved from Mexico and spoke only Spanish would receive training in English as a second language. Some Oakland officials said the district would consider seeking federal funds to help pay for its new program.
Education Secretary Richard W. Riley, however, killed off that hope even before the Education Department received an official request.
"Elevating `black English' to the status of a language is not the way to raise standards of achievement in our school and for our students," Riley said in a one-paragraph statement. It concluded with the declaration, "The administration's policy is that `Ebonics' is a nonstandard form of English and not a foreign language."
The black English controversy has divided African American leaders. Some have said that recognizing that black students speak differently is the first step toward increasing scholastic achievement among black pupils. In Oakland, for instance, about 53 percent of the district's 52,000 students are black, and school officials said these students on average have the lowest grades.
But other African Americans, including Jesse L. Jackson, said that movement toward Ebonics would limit black students' ability to compete for jobs against people who have mastered standard English.
"I understand the attempt to reach out to these children, but this is an unacceptable surrender borderlining on disgrace," Jackson said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." ". . . It's teaching down to our children and it must never happen."
School board member Jean Quan said Oakland had not decided definitely to seek federal funds Quan, for instance, was opposed to that even before Riley's decision but added that Riley seemed not to understand the purpose of the new policy. "We do recognize the reality that our kids are coming to schools with language that is not standard English" and that remedial steps are needed. "We're trying to be culturally sensitive and culturally respectful."
David Frank, a spokesman for Riley, said that the secretary wanted to speak out on the controversy quickly, even before the department received requests for bilingual funding, while the issue was receiving wide public attention.
"We can really close the door on that," Frank said, adding that Riley's decision parallels a similar Education Department position in 1981 under the Reagan administration.
Clinton approved the policy statement Monday while flying back from a visit to meet Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., an administration official said.
Ebonics, according to its devotees, explains why some blacks speak using variations on the verb "to be" in ways at odds with standard English.
Oakland in recent years carried out a trial program with about 100 teachers, who used classroom exercises to help students make the transition from black English to standard English. The program also helps teachers work with parents who speak black English. In earlier interviews, Oakland officials said the trial program succeeded in raising language scores.
California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) was no more encouraging of Oakland's experiment than Clinton. Wilson will fight any attempt by Oakland to get state funding for its Ebonics program.
"The mainstreaming of this ridiculous theory will only serve to hold [disadvantaged children] back," said Sean Walsh, Wilson's press secretary. "We have no interest at the state level of encouraging this highly dubious plan."
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company