The U.S. student body is more diverse today than ever before—in essentially every respect. This extends to linguistic diversity; as we wrote in a report last year:

More than 20 percent of U.S. kids speak a non-English language at home, one in four children is a child of immigrants, and more than five million students are currently classified as English learners (ELs).

American public education has always had a complicated relationship with the country’s multilingual heritage. The U.S. education system has gone through not only eras permitting expansive bilingual learning options, but also xenophobic—and more sustained—periods of English-only education.

These many oscillations on institutional support for bilingualism have muddied the public’s understanding of the value of bilingualism. In recent years, pressure from English-only schools and other institutions has led many ELs and their families to prioritize English acquisition at the cost of maintaining their native languages. We’ve commonly heard this sentiment from families, students, and educators during our many school visits in recent years. Historically, some polls have hinted that these pressures may have made English-only education more popular with families of diverse backgrounds.

Meanwhile, a growing body of research shows that bilingual education—particularly diverse dual-language immersion (DLI) programs—is the best way to support ELs. While researchers—including those of us at TCF and collaborating colleagues at other institutions—have regularly leaned on this consensus to push for more bilingual learning opportunities in U.S. schools, the field has paid insufficient attention to tracing what language instruction models families, particularly linguistically diverse families, actually want.

TCF Poll: Demand for Bilingual Education Is Consistently High

TCF partnered with polling firm Morning Consult this spring, surveying 579 families across the United States on their preferences for bilingual education.

The topline finding highlights growing recognition of bilingualism’s benefits: parents surveyed prefer bilingual education over English-only education by a two-to-one margin. However, a few more subtle findings emerge when disaggregating the data by age, ethnicity, party affiliation, and income.

    • There is strong demand for bilingual education from Hispanic adults. If presented with a choice, 69 percent of Hispanic adults would prefer bilingual education for their children, in contrast to 15 percent who prefer English-only. These percentages could suggest that Hispanic families view bilingual education as especially beneficial for supporting their children’s cultural and linguistic development (77.1 percent of ELs in the United States are Hispanic).
    • Democrats are particularly enthusiastic about bilingualism. Nearly two-thirds of Democrats would choose bilingual education for their children, if presented with a choice.
    • Income impacts language preferences. There was strong demand for bilingual education from families making over $100,000 a year—fully 64 percent preferred bilingual programs. By contrast, just 47 percent of families making under $50,000 would pick bilingual education for their children if they were presented with a choice. Notably, however, bilingual education was still these lower-income families’ most popular option. There was even less demand for monolingualism programs from these families—just 25 percent would choose English-only schooling for their children. More of these families (28 percent) stated they had “no preference.”
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These findings track several other recent surveys. In 2023, the Keep California Learning collaborative polled just under 1,000 California families—nearly three-quarters of whom included children designated as ELs—and found that 59 percent of respondents called “access to bilingual programs” either an “essential” or a “high” priority.

In fall 2022, Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors and UnidosUS conducted a national poll of 1,300 Latino families with young children (five-years-old or younger). Just 22 percent said that their children were “attending publicly available bilingual programming,” but 65 percent said that they “would enroll their child in a bilingual program if it were available.”

Growing Bilingual Education Supply to Meet Demand

Given TCF’s recent polling—and similar findings from other polls—showing strong public demand for bilingual schooling, education leaders should prioritize growing access to bilingual and/or DLI programs. As noted above, bilingual learning settings are the best way to advance ELs’ English acquisition, academic development, and emerging bilingual skills. Diverse, linguistically integrated two-way DLI programs—which enroll roughly equal shares of native speakers of English and native speakers of the program’s non-English language—are uniquely effective in this regard.

As policymakers expand their bilingual and DLI offerings, they should also prioritize equitable access—reserving seats for ELs and other linguistically diverse children. TCF’s polling suggests that this will require policymakers to address pernicious myths about children’s bilingual development. Families of lower socioeconomic status were much less likely to express interest in a bilingual setting for their children than families of higher socioeconomic status. This may reflect misinformation and monolingual pressure from the most recent—and not wholly receded—monolingual era in U.S. public education.

If these misconceptions about the value of bilingualism are not rectified, DLI programs risk becoming the province of privileged families—leaving insufficient supply for ELs in less-wealthy families. Indeed, while the number of DLI programs in U.S. public schools appears to have grown significantly in recent years, many of these programs attract far more community demand than they can meet with available seats—particularly from wealthy, English-dominant families.

Most districts say that a persistent shortage of bilingual teachers is the main variable limiting growth in their bilingual and/or DLI schools. As we wrote in a TCF report last summer, policymakers have myriad tools at their disposal to grow bilingual teacher training pathways. These can include fellowships and investments in scholarships to help make traditional teacher training programs more affordable for bilingual teacher candidates. These should also include the development and expansion of alternatives—more flexible teacher training and credentialing programs. Further, as we wrote in the aforementioned report, “policymakers should examine their [teacher] licensure system to ensure that each of its components is essential to supporting high-quality instruction—and that no components worsen bilingual teacher shortages.”

Fortunately, investments in new bilingual and DLI schools today would generate an amplifying effect that could eliminate the challenge over time. Each of these schools produces bilingual graduates, some of whom will be able to add to the linguistic diversity of the U.S. teaching force in the future. With any luck, this mechanism will conclusively settle U.S. schools’ approach to language instruction—moving beyond its monolingual, English-only elements in favor of its alternate tradition of multilingual, “English Plus” instruction.