The Impact of the Native American Languages Act on Public School Cirriculum: A Different View
Littlejohn, Jim, Journal of Law and Education
Does the Native American Languages Act (NALA) of 1990(1) require local schools to teach Native American students in their native language? Scott Ferrin argued that the wide latitude given to state and local educational agencies to choose educational programs for language minority students is inappropriate when applied to Native American students.2 He particularly targeted California's Proposition 227,(3) a 1998 law that halted compulsory bilingual education in the state by directing schools to teach language minority students primarily through special English immersion programs. According to Ferrin, "Questions are raised . . . whether California's Proposition 227 and other `English Only' referenda or legislation may violate the intent and rights enunciated in NALA, and thus the Supremacy Clause vis-a-vis Native American students."4
Ferrin misrepresented Proposition 227 as an English-only law5 to support his broader argument for curtailing local choices-that all federal laws and policies related to teaching Native American students must be aligned with his expansive view of NALA requirements. He claimed that any new federal legislation modeled on Proposition 227 would conflict with NALA and must include specific exceptions to allow Native American students to be taught in their native languages. He also questioned reliance on earlier case law that provides "undue deference" to local educational agencies, arguing that such deference to local choices is "based on a flawed understanding of that case law, ignores NALA's statements of policy and findings, and does not adequately take into account the unique social ills that confront Native Americans, including the danger of language extinction and cultural extermination."6
Ferrin's analysis erroneously elevates NALA to the status of a civil rights law, portrays Proposition 227 as not being consistent with the positions enunciated in NALA, and reinterprets 30 years of federal legal precedents that affirm the right of states and schools to determine the best ways to teach their English learners. He also conveniently ignored the practical and educational problems inherent in any requirement to provide classroom instruction through Native American languages.
Reexamination of the Native American Languages Act
Ferrin has substantially overstated the scope and intent of NALA, especially regarding its effect on state and local program choices for teaching Native American students. Section 102 of the Act contains ten very general findings that "recognize the special and unique status accorded Native Americans in the United States" and assert that "acts of suppression and extermination directed against Native American languages and cultures are in conflict with the United States policy of self-determination for Native Americans."7 None of the ten findings or other elements of the Act, taken singly or as a whole, curtail state and local laws that allow teaching Native American students in English. Further, the Act places no requirement on state and local schools to teach students in native languages.
With carefully worded rhetoric, Ferrin implied that local school decisions that emphasize teaching English instead of providing native language instruction (i.e., bilingual education) may be considered acts of "suppression and extermination" directed against particular native languages and cultures. He warned that "[a]n important impact of the Act in the present political climate is, potentially at least, to nullify referenda such as California's Proposition 227 ."8 This conclusion is wishful thinking because, to date, Proposition 227 has withstood all challenges in the courts at both the federal and state levels.
California moved away from mandated bilingual education because of its failure to teach two generations of language minority students either English or academic content. In 1996, Hispanic parents whose children attended the Ninth Street Elementary School in Los Angeles became alarmed that the children had not learned English after several years of instruction almost exclusively in Spanish. …