English-Only Education and Immigrant Integration

By Patrick L. Warren

I recently read two papers about English-only education in the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century that I found extremely interesting and wanted to share. For background, several states instituted English-only education policies in the lead up and aftermath of World War I, in a context where many private and some public schools offered bilingual education in German and English. These bilingual schools had, themselves, arisen as an alternative to exclusively German private schools that were founded with the large influx of German immigrants in the second half of the nineteenth century. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the laws restricting private schools' language of instruction in 1923, but by then few German-language schools restarted.

The first paper, "Did The Americanization Movement Succeed?" by Adriana Lleras-Muney and Allison Shertzer, was published last year in AEJ:Policy. They are looking at both compulsory schooling and English-only laws. They find that, on average, living in a state with English-only education laws had very little impact on immigrant children who were non-native English speakers- they were not more or less likely to be fluent in English, literate, stay in school, speak English, or serve in the U.S. Army in World War II. For a subset, those in center-cities or with illiterate/non-fluent parents, being in an English-only regime did increase literacy in English. By looking at cohorts, the main takeaway is that these immigrant children seem to be "Americanizing" quite quickly in the absence of the English-only laws, so they really didn't do much.

But it turns out that that is not the whole story. A second paper, "Backlash: The Unintended Effects of Language Prohibition in US Schools after World War I" by Vasiliki Fouka, looks at a whole different set of outcomes for these children to attempt to measure integration: volunteering for World War II, marrying within their language group, and choosing traditionally Germanic names for their children. The identification is through diff-in-diff in border counties, where one state institutes an English-only law. Here, she finds intriguing effects of being forced into English-only education. Men with German immigrant parents that were school aged in a English-only regime were about 1 percentage point (on a base of 40%) more likely to marry a spouse of German descent, chose significantly more "Germanic" names for their children, and were about 10 percentage points less likely to volunteer for World War II. The paper digs into these headline results in tons of detail. Do check it out.