February 09, 2008

No Spanish on the School Bus

A language rights case playing out in Nevada provides an excellent illustration of both the complex issues involved as well as the frequently muddled and ill-informed thinking of participants. In short, Richard Aumaugher, the superintendent of the Esmeralda County schools has prohibited students from speaking Spanish on the school bus. The affair is described nicely by Dennis Baron, who has somehow even managed to come up with photographs, and in the Pahrump Valley Times. The ACLU's summary is available in English and in Spanish. Likewise, the letter it has written to Mr. Aumaugher is available in English and in Spanish. The English version of the ACLU's letter includes as an appendix a letter sent to parents by Superintendant Aumaugher explaining his decision.

I agree with the ACLU that the ban on Spanish is unconstitutional. It is well established that there is a First Amendment right to speak the language one chooses to speak and that, with some exceptions students do not lose their First Amendment rights when in school. In this case, none of the educational exceptions apply. No class or other educational activity is conducted on the bus that might require the use of a particular language or that might be disrupted by the students' speech. Since this is far from the first time that such issues have arisen, it is surprising that a school superintendent would be unaware of the law and act in a flagrantly illegal manner, if not out of deference to the law, out of the desire to avoid controversy and litigation.

The motivation for the school district's ban on Spanish is interesting. If we take Mr. Aumaugher at his word, he has no dislike for the Spanish language or for Spanish-speakers. His action was, he says, triggered by learning that in Nevada, while 75% of "white" high school students graduate, only 55% of Spanish-speakers do. Surmising that this disparity is due to the inferior English skills of Spanish-speakers, he decided to ban the use of Spanish on school buses in order to force Spanish-speakers to get additional practice in English.

What is striking about this is the lack of any specific relationship between the needs of the kids on the school bus and the prohibition of Spanish. There is no indication that those particular Spanish-speaking kids were not doing well in school, nor is there any indication that their English is less than perfect. The available demographic data for Esmeralda County show a total population of 940, of which 63 were born outside the United States. Of the 69 Spanish speakers, only two are reported as speaking English "not well". None are reported as not speaking English at all. 47 are reported as speaking English "very well", 20 as speaking English "well". In other words, there is no reason to believe that in Esmeralda County Spanish-speakers suffer from any deficit in English. Nor does it appear that Superintendent Aumaugher made any investigation into the reasons for the lower graduation rate of Hispanic students. While language certainly could be a factor, there are many other possibilities. It is, for example, well known that educational attainment is related to family income. Since Hispanic people tend to have lower incomes than Anglos (and the statistics for Esmeralda County show a substantially lower median income for Hispanics), it is quite possible that this is the explanation.

In sum, the Esmeralda County schools took an offensive and unconstitutional action on the basis of the dubious assumption that Spanish-speakers necessarily have poor English skills and that this is the reason for lower graduation rates, as well as the further questionable assumption that Spanish-speakers whose English skills remained inadequate in spite of attendance at an English-speaking high school would be brought up to par by additional practice on the school bus. The English-only movement is certainly driven in part by xenophobia and a desire for cultural and linguistic homogeneity, but this example shows how even in the apparent absence of such factors, policies are all too often formed in cavalier ignorance of the facts.

Posted by Bill Poser at February 9, 2008 02:58 PM