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Bilingual Education as “Political Spectacle” (Koyama and Bartlett)

Excerpt from  draft of: Koyama and Bartlett. 2011. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism.

Educational Policy as Political Spectacle

This article draws upon Edelman’s (1988) theory of political spectacle as applied to educational policy by Smith (2004).  Political spectacles are, according to these scholars, political constructions of reality that “resemble theater, complete with directors, stages, casts of actors, narrative plots, and (most importantly) a curtain that separates the action onstage—what the audience has access to—from the backstage, where ‘real allocation of values’ takes place” (Smith 2004:11).  Variations between onstage and backstage conduct and maneuverings, originally elucidated by Goffman (1959), are often concealed by the actors.  Presented to the public through the media, as serving their good, spectacles serve to obscure the ways in which they sustain inequalities and maintain power differentials.

In political spectacle applied to policy, dramaturgy includes staging “policy events that are carefully crafted and planned for the purpose of media attention” (Wright 2005:664).   Onstage, props are strategically selected and deployed as symbolic objects imbued with meaning.  “Characters are cast to play certain roles” (Smith 2004:16) that are infused with power and significance.  The roles of policy actors—leaders, enemies, and allies—are socially constructed by political interest groups. These actors generate and repeat their plot lines to garner support for their positions, creating for the public the illusion that they are participants, rather than just spectators.  Narratives or story lines that support and oppose a policy are plotted and delivered. In this case, narratives range from “blaming the victim” for not learning English, to the manufacturing of a crisis, in which emergent bilinguals and their immigrant families are destroying our global competitiveness.

The theatrics are for public consumption. However, backstage actors (who are far less numerous than spectators) “negotiate for themselves material benefits using the informal language of barter, in contrast to the stylized, formal, abstract, ambiguous language characteristic of the performance onstage” (Smith 2004:32). Benefits can include material profits, political influence, or increased opportunities. Tangible benefits often go to those who identify potential profit from the adoption and implementation of a policy and also to those using the policy to further their careers. For example, Ron Unz, a California millionaire who authored and financed two “English-only” propositions, has used the resulting recognition to mount his political campaigns.

Political spectacles are interpretations of public policy that aim to systematically strengthen particular political ideologies while creating illusions of democracy. Winton (n.d.) notes that “even when citizens vote or participate in policy discussions, the details of polices are worked out [backstage, away from] the public’s view” (6). The spectacles present distortions of public policy to the public, concealing costs and benefits through a dramatization of particular ideas and values. In the case of bilingual education or language policies in the United States, English becomes inextricably bound to national allegiance and democratic values while other languages, such as Spanish, are positioned as a threat to the strength and integrity of the nation.

Deception in political spectacle hinges upon the use of symbolic language, which is ambiguous, metaphorical, and open to multiple interpretations. Policy-targeted problems are situated vague claims; “A central theme of this analysis, then, is the diversity of meanings inherent in every social problem, stemming from the range of concerns of different groups, each eager to pursue courses of action and call them solutions” (Edelman 1988: 15). Ill defined terms such as “national identity” and “democratic citizenry” are employed to evoke emotional responses. Words, figures, and numerical data used by political leaders to support policies are presented as precise and absolute, rather than subjectively contextualized. Paradoxically, “political language bemuses, obfuscates, befogs, mystifies, lulls, [and] glosses” (Smith 2004:16), while garnering consensus through its vagueness.

Utilizing a political spectacle framework to examine bilingual education policy in the United States illuminates not only how policy develops its “own momentum inside the state” (Ball 2006:45), but more explicitly elucidates how particular politicians, with the enlistment of the media and corporate investment, capitalize on the power of policy to produce particular versions of truth and knowledge. The spectacle perspective exposes the ways in which national and local government officials, influential businessmen, and influential policy stakeholders collude in staging policy in a political climate, best described as the marketization of education and the depoliticization of citizens (Koyama, forthcoming; Ball 2006; Ozga 2000; Smith 2004).

Bilingual Education as Political Spectacle

Federally, bilingual education is inextricably linked through legislation, court decisions, and executive action, to the country’s “war on poverty.” It has been “largely a compensatory program to remediate the language deficits of limited English speakers” (Gándara and Gomez 2009:582). Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), often referred to as the Bilingual Education Act (BEA), was added in 1968 and became the first official federal bilingual education policy in the United States. As a political spectacle, despite its misleading name, the BEA focused, not on developing bilingualism, but rather on eliminating poverty among “deprived” children who presumably suffered from an English language deficit. The narrative or story line of the Act was one of intervention in the (political and media manufactured) “crisis” of rising Mexican immigration (García and Gonzalez 1995). It was a law of remediation, ambiguously written and variably enacted “during a time of great domestic upheaval and demographic transformations, including the civil rights movement and the federal War on Poverty” (Reyes 2006:370). Ten years after its inception, Title VII was reauthorized in a version that explicitly denied native language maintenance in favor of federal funding for transitional programs, in which children were to learn English as quickly as possible. By 1994, Title VII was renewed and the cap on the quantity of English-only programs was lifted, thus paving the way for districts who claimed they could not support bilingual programs to proceed with English only (Gándara and Gomez 2009).

In the early 1980s, amidst the rapid increase of a Spanish speaking immigrant population, the English-only movement reframed bilingual education as a bane to cultural assimilation and citizen participation. The movement swelled and gained increasing media coverage, especially in California and the Southwest, states with large Mexican immigrant populations. While unsuccessful in getting federal legislation passed, the movement did secure measures in twenty-eight states (García 2009).  California and Arizona, which have the large populations of emergent bilinguals, have eliminated bilingual education.  In California, Proposition 227, an English-only state school accountability program, supported by district-level policies, mandated movement toward English-only reading programs (Stritikus 2002). Arizona’s Proposition 203, entitled “English for Children,” restricts bilingual and English-as-a-second-language programs in favor of English-only education.

In the staging of the Proposition 203 and Proposition 227 spectacles, immigrant families and local Latino officials were used as props, appearing in campaign television advertisements. Attached to the families was the following rhetoric: immigrant parents want their children to learn English. The primary author of both propositions, Ron Unz, cast the federal government and public schools as culpable. The narrative he and his followers created was that public schools, which share a moral obligation to teach all children English, had failed to educate immigrant children because of costly experimental language programs—i.e. bilingual education. Political hopefuls, turned policy leaders, made public (and publicized) alliances with local Latino government officials, creating the symbolic illusion that initiatives had grassroots Latino support.

Nationally, the political spectacle of bilingual education policy continued to be staged. In 2002, Title VII was eliminated under the reauthorization of ESEA as No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  It was replaced by Title III (Public Law 107-110), in which all references to bilingual instruction were eliminated. In fact, the word “bilingual” was removed, not only from the law, but also from any government offices associated with it (García 2009). Ambiguous language and grandiose titles that conflated different educational foci were generated. The Office of English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement for Limited-English Proficient Students replaced the Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs. Through Title III, federal funding shifted from competitive grants to formula grants allocated to states based on enrollments of students designated as “Limited English Proficient” (LEP), and has resulted in a reduction of per student funding (García 2009).

The political spectacle of NCLB has been widely noted, although not all scholars have used that framing. Relying on persuasive, ambiguous clusters of keywords, such as “nation” and “democracy,” NCLB is packaged and performed for the American public as a ‘common sense’ education reform.  According to the NCLB narrative, it is time to rationally address all of the children and help those who need it most.  Common sense, “a culture-driven commodity” (Weiss 2005:79), tells the public that those children who are failing in school need to be identified and “helped.”  In the media, NCLB is portrayed by its supporters as a “civil rights” measure that conflates public education issues with the unattainable goal of 100% proficiency in mathematics and English by 2014. The public is told that the crisis in American public education is so severe that the deficiency of achievement (which has supposedly reduced the U.S.’s global economic competitiveness) requires federal intervention.

As the main concepts of NCLB—high-stakes assessments, increased productivity, and accountability of work—have become cornerstones in the current neoliberal climate, NCLB operates at some common sense level and its basic assumptions are increasingly unchallenged (Koyama, forthcoming). Further, stating that “no child” will be ignored, or conversely that “all children” will be addressed, hides categories by naturalizing them, disguising the fact that NCLB is premised upon the disaggregation of children and their test scores into race, ethnicity, class, language, and cognitive and physical abilities so that much can be made of their differential test results. Under NCLB, bilingual education or what Crawford (2004) has aptly named the “B-word,” has been replaced with English as a Second Language (ESL) programs and references to bilingual education have been silenced in mainstream media, as well as in federal, state, and district educational agencies.

Bilingual education in New York State has not fallen prey to English-only campaigns, although changes have occurred. The Aspira Consent Decree (1974) that ensures transitional bilingual education as a legal entitlement for students has become, through a lack of funding, a symbolic, rather than a material policy. Recently, “as in other locations, standardized testing has affected bilingual education” (García and Bartlett 2007:4) in New York City.  In particular, the imposition of the state English Regents exam—a six-hour exam, which is taken over two days—as a high school graduation requirement has resulted in reduced instruction time in languages other than English (Menken 2005) and increased the intensity of English instruction, essentially eliminating substantive bilingual education in high school (García and Menken, 2006). In the context of these policies regarding assessment and bilingual education, schools in New York City have struggled to educate Latino English language learners.

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