Every once in a while, I feel a burning urge to somehow put to use that degree in Linguistics I earned all those years ago. This time, it started with two articles that recently caught my attention ... the first was from yesterday's Washington Post, under the headline "Fairfax Schools System Faces Growing Budget Challenge As More Students Need ESOL Classes;" the other was this story from NPR which aired last Saturday: "Some Georgia Schools Make Mandarin Mandatory."
Here in Fairfax County, Virginia, which is a relatively affluent area, the well-regarded school system is facing the same sort of budget problems that are plaguing school systems across the country ... but with a bit of a twist: so many foreign families are moving to the area and enrolling their children in the public schools that budgets for training in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) are mushrooming, to the detriment of other subjects. According to the article,
"This year, about 31,500 students are projected to enroll in ESOL, representing 17 percent [emphasis is mine] of the total county student population and an increase of nearly one-third from last year."
The problem is compounded by the fact that ESOL teaching is mandated by the federal government, but the law prohibits federal funds from being used to pay for it. As a result, money that could be used to pay for vital education for all students in reading, math, science, and - yes - civics must be siphoned off to help teach foreign students the basic English they need to master everything else.
I strongly believe in education for all, but this is just wrong.
The other story strikes me as a classic example of a wonderful idea that makes no sense in current conditions.
The superintendent of public schools in Bibb County, Georgia (the area surrounding the city of Macon) has instituted a requirement for the teaching of Mandarin Chinese to every student from pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade. The superintendent, Romain Dallemand, says,
"Students who are in elementary school today, by 2050 they'll be at the pinnacle of their career. They will live in a world where China and India will have 50 percent of the world GDP. They will live in a world where, if they cannot function successfully in the Asian culture, they will pay a heavy price."
In itself, this is not a bad idea. I firmly believe in the importance of learning a foreign language - more than one, if possible - and China is definitely a growing economic, military, and political power with which we must be able to communicate effectively. But at a time when schools are overrun with students who cannot function in English, it seems silly to mandate the teaching of a supremely difficult language like Mandarin, important though it may be.
The GOP made a lot of noise during its convention about the importance of education. But when the party's program is based largely on cutting taxes - which, oddly enough, pay for public education - it makes one doubt the sincerity of their belief in education. But then, this is the party that ignores basic science and includes loud fringe groups that insist on teaching "creation science."
Education has always been important, but in the 21st century, it's more important than ever. We need to prepare our students with strong basic skills in math, science, critical thinking, and - yes - foreign languages. But if limited funds must be spent simply to teach basic English to students who exclusively speak another language at home, we will continue to fall behind other nations which recognize the importance of a well-rounded education.
If we don't spend money on elementary, secondary, and higher education, we'll find that there will be plenty of jobs for our young people in the future ... offering fries and dessert with the burgers ordered by the foreigners who prize education and are willing to make the necessary investment in it.
Have a good day. Learn a foreign language, but learn other things, too. And support the people who teach your children.
More thoughts tomorrow.