First in the Midwest: Almost 180 years ago, Ohio opened the door to bilingual education

Few issues related to American education policy have consistently stirred more controversy over as many years as has the question of how best to teach students whose first language is something other than English.

In a nation whose history is marked by waves of newcomers arriving from countries around the world, the appropriate language of public education has been debated since the first European settlers arrived in the 17th century, and the pendulum of public opinion on the subject has swung many times.

The debate over bilingual education and competing models for the instruction of non-English speaking students may be rooted in our colonial past, but it wasn’t until 1839 that Ohio became the nation’s first state to formally authorize bilingual teaching in public schools.<--break->Prior to that time, English and the favored languages of various immigrant groups frequently co-existed in close proximity. English was commonly the language of instruction in public schools, but other languages were just as likely to be used exclusively in private or parochial schools serving immigrant populations clustered in specific areas.

By the time Ohio entered the union in 1802, the new state was home to a large and politically influential population of German immigrants. State laws were routinely published in German as well as English, for example, and the German community was well-represented in the state legislature.

These factors helped fuel a growing demand for German to be taught and spoken in the public schools wherever large German populations lived. The goal was not to replace English (many German immigrants were quick to adopt the English language) as much as it was to preserve the German tongue while also making it easier for German-language speakers to learn in American schools.

As taxpayers who contributed significant financial support for public schools, the German community eventually prevailed, and the statute adopted by the legislature in 1839 (which permitted German instruction in public schools upon the request of a sufficient number of parents) was soon emulated in other states and territories. 

By the end of the 19th century, at least a dozen states had adopted laws authorizing bilingual education in their public schools. German was the leading alternative to English at the time, with more than 600,000 primary education students receiving instruction in that language. Representing 4 percent of all elementary students nationwide, that was a larger share of the total than the portion of U.S. students who were receiving instruction in Spanish a century later.

The proponents of bilingual education have always argued that exclusive instruction in a second language (through a language immersion program, for example) is not enough to ensure the acquisition of that language. They contend that bilingual education, on the other hand, helps to facilitate a dual language learner’s academic success, as well as the eventual acquisition of a second language.

But opponents contend that dual language learning merely slows the assimilation process that many view as essential to the long-term economic and cultural success of newly arrived immigrants.

The outlines of this familiar divide were apparent long before Ohio adopted its groundbreaking statute in 1839, and bilingual education has fallen in and out of favor numerous times through the decades. The First World War ushered in a wave of anti-German sentiment and temporarily ended the expansion of non-English education nationwide.

By 1923, 34 states had passed “English-only” laws mandating the exclusive use of English in public school instruction, and — until the Supreme Court intervened by striking down one such law — some even banned the study of foreign languages entirely.

Not until after World War II did the United States begin warming again to the concept of bilingual education.

The Bilingual Education Act of 1968, for example, provided funding for the establishment of bilingual education programs for English-language learners. A landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision six years later required public schools to adopt strategies to meet the educational needs of their non-English speaking students, and a wave of state bilingual education laws soon followed.

More recently, though, the scales shifted again with passage of the No Child Left Behind Act; it effectively supplanted the Bilingual Education Act and made clear that acquisition of the English language should be the primary objective of any bilingual education strategy.


Stateline Midwest: April 20162.25 MB