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Before the Federal Bilingual Education Act: Legislation and LivedExperience in California

Peabody Journal of Education: Issues of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations, Vol. 85, No. 4

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela,  Eugene Lang College, New School University

The federal Bilingual Education Act (BEA; 1968) augured a new era in the national politics of diversity, schooling, and state, and California became symbolic of the problems and promise of bilingual pedagogy. This article explores how the BEA was pivotal not only in conceiving a federal commitment to the educational achievement of limited-English-speaking children but also in spurring state and local action. Yet close attention reveals how philosophically and fiscally limited were the terms of the federal act. California had been experimenting with bilingual education in many districts, where innovative programs operated independently of state or federal involvement. On one hand, the emerging legislative structure embodied by the federal BEA pushed districts and states to question the received attitudes about Mexican American underachievement that permeated their practice. On the other hand, the BEA supplanted earlier, locally developed programs, increasing oversight and enforcement and often casting districts as villains and at times even checking adventurous earlier programs. In the 1960s, Californians as well as national politicians and educators engaged in an unprecedented, bipartisan dialogue about bilingual education, in which California conservatives earnestly advocated albeit moderate programs during these early but crucial years in the modern history of bilingual education.

Natalia Mehlman-Petrzela is assistant professor of education studies and history at the New School University and received her Ph.D. in History in 2009 from Stanford University. She studies late 20th-century U.S. social, political, and cultural history and is working on a book tentatively titled Origins of the Culture Wars: Politicizing Sex, Language, School and Family, 1968-78, based on research supported by fellowships from the Whiting and Spencer Foundations.