STATE HOUSE – Sen. Sandra Cano, Rep. David Morales and Rep. Leonela Felix were joined by advocates from the Coalition for a Multilingual RI yesterday for Multilingual Education Advocacy Day at the State House. The group held a press conference advocating for two bills to increase investments in multilingual education for all Rhode Island students.
“Learning a new language can open a world of opportunities, from jobs to travel to just thinking about the world in new ways,” said Senator Cano (D-Dist. 8, Pawtucket). “By investing in bilingual education and multilingual educators, we will promote both efficiency and educational equity for the children of our state while ensuring they are ready to compete in the 21st century economy.”
The Coalition for a Multilingual RI is a coalition of 26 organizations that promotes access to high-quality dual language and world language programs and the opportunity to learn in multiple languages for all Rhode Island students.
Legislators and the coalition advocated passage of two bills. The first, the Access to Bilingual Education Act (2023-S 0549, 2023-H 5777), is sponsored in the House by Representative Felix (D-Dist. 61, Pawtucket). It would create a dual language program within the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) that would, conditional on funding, provide grants to schools and districts that establish dual language programs. Additional funding could come from the state, charitable contributions or other sources.
The second bill, the Multilingual Educators Investment Act (2023-S 0559, 2023-H 6023), is sponsored in the House by Representative Morales (D-Dist. 7, Providence). It would establish a program to expand the issuance of teaching certificates to bilingual dual language and world language teachers in urban and urban ring schools and create a scholarship program to attract more teachers who speak multiple languages.
Both bills are sponsored in the Senate by Chairwoman Cano, who serves as chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Education.
“Connecticut and Texas already require dual-language instruction. Utah and Delaware incentivize and support these programs,” said Erin Papa, director of the Coalition for a Multilingual RI. “When we look to the future of education in Rhode Island, we have to ask ourselves: Will we continue with English-centric programs that fail to meet the needs of our students? Or will we set them up for success?”
About 11% of public school students in Rhode Island are multilingual learners, according to RI Kids Count. About 81% of English-learners in RI public schools speak Spanish as a primary language. Often, the fact that some students speak a language other than English has been viewed as a deficit that schools must correct with immersion into an English-only classroom with an English-speaking teacher.
But advocates argue that such an approach is leaving all students behind. Research shows having a teacher who speaks the student’s language dramatically improves that student’s ability to learn English and overall academic achievement. Advocates point out that investing in teachers who speak the student’s language will save the state money in the long run by improving educational outcomes. And having multiple languages and cultures present in our schools is an opportunity for students who only speak English as well to learn a new language and explore other cultures.
“For too long, a student who doesn’t speak English have been viewed as a detriment, an expense,” said Representative Morales. “Instead, they should be valued for their contributions to our rich cultural landscape. We must appreciate their ability to help other students learn another language and learn about cultures that may be different from their own. And we must appreciate that all students will benefit from the opportunity to be bilingual. Therefore, we must recruit multilingual educators so all Rhode Island students have an opportunity to learn a new language and succeed.”
“Whatever our background or whatever language we speak at home, we all want our kids to succeed in school and have opportunities after they graduate,” said Representative Felix. “Ensuring all students have the opportunity to graduate speaking another language will be a tremendous benefit, not just for their ability to compete in a global economy, but for their participation in our diverse community. These bills are a smart investment.”