Politics & Policy

Avoiding an Unneeded Flap Over FLAP

Don’t kill federal funding for foreign-language instruction.

House Republicans appear to be on the verge of making a terrible mistake, both politically and in terms of education policy.

On May 25, the House Education and the Workforce Committee passed its first major package of reforms under new chairman John Kline (R., Minn.), eliminating more than 40 inefficient, duplicative federal education programs. “There are more than 80 programs under current elementary and secondary education law, and that’s just too complicated and too great a burden for our schools and local districts,” Kline declared when the bill passed out of committee. “It’s time to weed out the programs that aren’t working and focus on initiatives that lead to real success in the nation’s classrooms.”

#ad#To most fiscal conservatives, large swaths of this proposal will make perfect sense, such as eliminating programs that are on the books but that have never received funding through the appropriations process, programs that haven’t received funding in several years, or programs that amount to earmarks, such as the Special Education Teacher Training Program, which gives $100,000 to the University of Northern Colorado train special-education teachers.

In an era of the Internet in the classroom, dropping funding for Ready to Learn television seems long overdue. Considering how few Americans understand much of anything about economics, it’s a bit troubling to see funding eliminated for the Council on Economic Education, but perhaps none of the council’s work will ever have the reach and popular appeal of the Keynes vs. Hayek rap videos.

But in the list of programs on the chopping block, in the category of “programs that are duplicative or inappropriate for the federal government” is this:

Foreign Language Assistance Program: The Foreign Language Assistance program provides grants for foreign language instruction. The program received $19 million in FY 2009, $15.7 million in FY 2010, and $27 million in FY 2011. The Foreign Language Assistance program has too narrow a purpose, and the activities funded under the program can already be supported under the ESEA Title I (Aid for the Disadvantaged) program.

Eliminate all targeted federal funding for teaching kids foreign languages? Seriously?

First, despite the assertion from the legislation’s architect, Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr. (R., Calif.), the program’s activities can’t really just be shifted to Title I programs. Title I grantshave numerous conditions: Schools must have at least a 40 percent poverty rate, or the program must specifically target children who are failing or are at high risk of failing. In other words, no matter how well the program performs or how cost-effective a school’s foreign-language program was, it couldn’t get any direct federal funding unless the student body was sufficiently impoverished or unless the program changed to help only failing or near-failing students. Students who aren’t failing would be out of luck.

The program deems FLAP to have “too narrow a purpose.” But this isn’t basket-weaving.

Other federal grant money could theoretically still be used to fund foreign-language programs, but this is an area that deserves targeted aid — direct encouragement from the federal government. Look at this from the national-security perspective, if not a “hey, this vote could easily be demagogued and used as attack ad fodder by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee” perspective.

The FBI has a critical shortage of qualified translators, leaving 31 percent of captured foreign-language e-mails and electronic communication un-translated and 25 percent of captured audio un-translated. They actually have fewer linguists than they did the last time the OIG looked at this, in 2005. It takes 19 months to hire a linguist and an additional seven months to hire a contract linguist to a permanent FBI employee.

The U.S. State Department has a serious shortage of personnel with key language skills; as of 2008, 31 percent of Foreign Service officers did not meet both the foreign languages speaking and reading proficiency requirements for their positions with the rate hitting near 40 percent the Near East and South and Central Asia. Fewer than a third of the Central Intelligence Agency’s analysts and overseas spies were proficient in a foreign language.The Government Accountability Office has found that the Department of Homeland Security knows that the U.S. Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement all need more multilingual employees, but still haven’t figured out how many. The Department of Defense – you get the idea.

#page#Getting federal employees up to speed on foreign languages is costly. The Department of Defense spent $550 million for major language and culture programs identified by the Defense Language Office, and an additional $13 million for the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command and another $10 million for the Marine Corps’ Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning. A large chunk of the $215 million in “Training Services” in the U.S. State Department’s budget goes towards languages. A large portion of the $1.7 billion in the FBI’s budget request for its Intelligence Decision Unit is for the Foreign Language Program, the National Virtual Translation Center, the Language Analysis section, and the Communications Exploitation Section.

In all, it’s probable that the federal government spends well over $1 billion per year teaching foreign languages to its employees. And by one review of 54,358 federal contracts for translation and interpreting services, the federal government has spent an additional $4.5 billion on outsourced language services since 1990.

#ad#Of course, teaching a first grader Arabic doesn’t mean we can turn around and put him at a listening station to listen in to Syrian military communications. But there’s a strong case to be made that a big reason Americans are mostly unilingual is that our schools wait too long to teach other languages. The “Critical Period Hypothesis” is still debated among linguists, but there’s general agreement that younger children tend to pick up foreign languages faster than older children and teenagers, and certainly adults. But only 25 percent of elementary schools offer any foreign language instruction and only 58 percent of middle schools, which is actually a significant drop from a decade earlier.

Obviously, adults can and do learn foreign languages all the time. But how much sense does it make for the federal government to cut $27 million in funding for childhood foreign-language education, given the shortage of foreign-language speakers in such a critical job market? FLAP’s current precarious position doesn’t fit the traditional “heartless conservatives cutting beloved government program” template; the Obama administration wants to end FLAP and lump its duties into a pool of funds for “Effective Teaching and Learning for a Well-Rounded Education” along with six other programs, among them economics, history, civic education, and the arts. So in Obama’s vision, foreign-language programs will be competing with the basket-weavers for funds.

The budget must be cut — that is the cry of fiscal conservatives and the Tea Parties. But Tea Partiers often turn to our Founding Fathers for guidance and wisdom on modern challenges. It is worth noting their example.

Many of the Founding Fathers spoke several languages, and most of them learned them in childhood. As Martin Cothran writes in his essay “The Classical Education of the Founding Fathers,” “The typical education of the time began in what we would call the 3rd Grade — at about age eight. Students who actually went to school were required to learn Latin and Greek grammar and, later, to read the Latin historians Tacitus and Livy, the Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides, and to translate the Latin poetry of Virgil and Horace. They were expected to know the language well enough to translate from the original into English and back again to the original in another grammatical tense.”

It is unsurprising that, with a curriculum that required foreign languages from an early age, many of the Founding Fathers spoke three languages or more. John Adams read Latin and learned Greek and Hebrew in order to translate some parts of the Old Testament. Thomas Jefferson claimed to speak Greek, Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish, although some historians debate how fluent he was in these. Alexander Hamilton spoke Latin and Greek, as did James Madison, who also studied Hebrew in college. Benjamin Franklin claimed to have mastered French (he knew it well enough to be our first ambassador) and then began studying Italian. John Quincy Adams, traveled with his father when he served as America’s envoy to France and the Netherlands, and accordingly studied French and Dutch. James Monroe spoke fluent French. At a time when almost everyone agrees that our education system needs to set high standards, why would we want to eliminate a program that emulates the rigorous model of our Founders?

Mind you, the value of FLAP and early-childhood foreign-language education is entirely separate from the controversies over English immersion for students for whom it is a second language, or whether the United States should be English-only. Better communication should help school districts and FLAP administrators avoid controversies like a recent commotion in Texas, where some parents feared that a curriculum designed to teach Arabic could turn into mandatory proselytizing for Islam. (After the program was revised to account for parental objections, the Department of Education rejected the school district’s amended grant proposal.)

The question of whether to keep the modest funding for FLAP going hinges on whether there is value in having a workforce with at least a beginning foundation in learning foreign languages. Beyond the national-security implications, the national fiscal benefits seem obvious in a globalized economy.

House Republicans are right to look at the Department of Education and see many programs that can be eliminated or consolidated. But ditching FLAP, and effectively ending any federal funding for foreign language education before college, would be an egregious case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.

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