A Limited Mandate For the Transitional Bilingual Education

The transitional bilingual education (TBE) program resulting from the Aspira consent decree was a political compromise. It was something less than the developmental or maintenance bilingual program that was supported by the Puerto Rican and Latino community and that the Aspira plaintiffs had wanted.

TBE was never established as a legal right for all Latino pupils, only for those whose command of English was deemed inadequate. Later commentators faulted Aspira’s leaders and the PRLDEF lawyers for adopting a narrow litigation strategy; many community activists and bilingual advocates viewed the consent decree as founded on an assimilationist model of education that would lead to a deficit-based, remedial type of bilingual education.

Over the years, this compromise created a rift between two groups: On one side were the bilingual professionals responsible for implementing and administering TBE and ESL instructional programs, along with grassroots education reformers; on the other side were the community leaders who continued to embrace developmental bilingual program models, including late-exit “maintenance” bilingual programs and, later, dual-language or two-way immersion programs.

Many Latino educators and community leaders also regarded the limited TBE mandate as a weakness of the consent decree because it did not address all the endemic conditions faced by the larger Latino student population. As a negotiated compromise, the decree was based on the then-reigning ideology that regarded the acquisition of English as the paramount social and educational imperative.

The board of education had insisted on keeping a smaller proportion of Latino ELLs in TBE programs. Approximately 40% of Latino students were to be included in the programs mandated by the decree. But the cutoff for ELL eligibility was set at the 20th percentile, a significantly low test score based on the Language Assessment Battery (LAB), a norm referenced test of English proficiency. Most important, there were no new services or any changes in mainstream monolingual English instruction for most Latino students.

Despite these limitations, the consent decree recognized the legitimacy of the Latino community’s concerns and its interest in having Spanish as a medium of instruction. From a Puerto Rican/Latino perspective, the historical context for bilingual education in New York City included a set of persistent conditions, many of which arguably still exist.

Among these were the disproportionate Latino drop-out rate, Latino academic underachievement, the lack of adequate and culturally appropriate guidance and support services, the discouragement of parent and community involvement, and the low representation of Puerto Ricans and Latinos in teaching and school administrator roles.