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How Parents Feel About Bilingual Schools and English-Only Programs

A majority of parents would prefer to enroll their children in a bilingual school where they can gain proficiency in a second language in addition to English over a school focused only on English, according to new national polling data from the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.

The polling firm Morning Consult conducted the nationally representative poll for the think tank this spring, surveying 579 parents.

The results add to the growing research on the demand for bilingual education at a time when all 50 states now support students gaining a special notation on high school diplomas known as the seal of biliteracy.

“The two-to-one preference for bilingual education, was super encouraging. I definitely would not have placed bets quite that high,” said Conor Williams, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

The results also help researchers looking into equitable access to bilingual programs better determine the supply demand for such programming.

Yet currently at a national scale, the supply of bilingual education programs remains low, in part, due to a small number of bilingual educators, researchers at the Century Foundation said.

Poll dispels assumptions about bilingual education preferences

When breaking down the poll results by ethnicity, income, and political affiliation, researchers were able to find preferences for bilingual education that contradict some previously held assumptions.

For instance, 69 percent of Hispanic adults would prefer bilingual education for their children, even as there tends to be an image of these parents preferring their students to focus solely on learning the English language, Williams said. According to updated federal data, 77.9 percent of the nation’s English learners were Hispanic in fall 2021.

Jonathan Zabala, a senior policy associate at the Century Foundation, spoke of how more Black non-Hispanic parents than white parents expressed a preference for bilingual education.

While more parents identifying politically as Democrats preferred bilingual education over Republican participants (65 percent versus 45 percent), more Republicans preferred bilingual education over English-only programming (45 percent versus 36 percent).

The poll data also found a discrepancy of preference when it came to families’ income. Families making more than $100,000 a year were most likely to prefer bilingual education for their children, while families making less than $50,000 a year were the least likely to prefer this programming.

Lower-income families were also the most likely to say they had no preference for either bilingual education or English-only programming.

“Maybe that has to do with their exposure to bilingual education programs, whether or not they’ve ever seen it or viewed it as a real option because sometimes these programs can be exclusive and geared towards upper income [families], even though that’s not where it’s supposed to be,” Zabala said.

For a more detailed view on demand for bilingual education programs, future polls could inquire how high of a priority such programming is to parents when pitted against concerns such as proximity to bilingual education schools, and whether preference for such programming depends on the languages taught, Williams said.

For instance, would preference among parents for enrollment in a bilingual education school differ if the school offered instruction in English and Spanish versus instruction in English and Mandarin Chinese?

Additional poll questions could also focus on regional preferences, as in how likely parents would prefer bilingual education in rural, urban, and suburban locations, Williams added.

Research shows cognitive, cultural, and economic benefits of bilingualism

Growing demand for bilingual education from parents likely stems from the various benefits students can gain from being multilingual, said Joel Gomez, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Center for Applied Linguistics.

Research has found that fluency in multiple languages makes students more cognitively flexible, Gomez said. Multilingualism also offers the social value of being able to process information from differing perspectives which translates to better understanding others. There is also the economic benefit of being able to succeed in global multilingual markets.

Gomez and Century Foundation researchers alike acknowledge the challenge for schools to provide bilingual education programs when there aren’t many bilingual educators. Yet Gomez sees an opportunity for state leaders to step in and ensure teacher credentialing requirements build up the bilingual educator pipeline.

“On the one hand, all states are supporting the seal of biliteracy. But on the other hand, states are very slow in revising their teacher credentialing requirements for universities,” Gomez said.

Gomez also spoke of how parents interested in accessing bilingual education programs can appeal to school boards to make it a priority.

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