The Bilingual Education Act
January 2, 1968
The Bilingual Education Act (BEA) was the first piece of federal legislation to deal specifically with language and culture in the schools. Prior to passage of the act, language-related programs— like those encouraging innovative teaching techniques and antipoverty measures—were possible under broader federal programs such as NDEA and EOA grants, but these measures did not deal exclusively with language and culture. The BEA raised questions and issues regarding diversity and assimilation, cultural pride, and national unity that are still intensely debated today. The act and all of the issues it highlighted are very controversial, and consequently, the act has been substantially amended several times since 1968. The act has endured, however, and has provided significant federal funding for bilingual and other language-related programs in the schools, adult-education programs, vocational-education programs, efforts to reduce dropout rates among targeted populations, and efforts to promote cultural knowledge and appreciation.
The BEA is often cast as a part of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society/War on Poverty package of education legislation, but it was actually initiated by Congress. The administration at first opposed the act, and, when passage became clear, only reluctantly and tepidly endorsed the effort. Senator Ralph Yarborough (D-TX) actually led the push for the BEA in an effort to mobilize Hispanic voters for what he expected to be a very tough reelection bid in 1970. That Yarborough saw the bill through to passage is testament to real political skill. The more important politics, however, involve the debate since passage. The language/culture issue raises strong