LANSING Schools throughout the state may soon be adding foreign languages in elementary and middle schools to their core curriculum.
A bill by Rep. David Nathan, D-Detroit, would require districts to offer at least one foreign language at every level of K-12 schooling.
According to Nathan, the bill, which would take effect in the 2011-12 school year, is intended to better prepare students for a competitive global economy.
Nathan said that Michigan students must compete with not only those in-state and across the country, but abroad.
"Now we know that our economy is a global economy, so we compete with folks all over this world," Nathan said. "If we are serious about having our kids compete, they have to have a foreign language."
However, Scott Moellenberndt, the superintendent of Blissfield Community Schools, said that although the principle is good, districts couldn't afford such a mandate.
"Educationally we know we should be introducing foreign language in the third- or fourth-grade level," Moellenberndt said, noting that the district has laid off staff in the past two years. "Even though educationally it's sound, fiscally it's not."
State law already requires graduating seniors, starting with the class of 2016, to complete two years of foreign language, according to Emily Spinelli, the Michigan World Language Association's public affairs liaison and executive director of the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese.
Spinelli said Nathan's bill would allow districts to be better prepared to meet the two-year requirement.
According to Spinelli, a retired Spanish professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, benefits from learning a foreign language spread into many facets of life, including cultural understanding and improvement in other areas of learning.
"People who learn a new language have a richer vocabulary in their first language, better critical thinking skills, do better on their ACTs and are better prepared for global societies," Spinelli said.
Moellenberndt said that while there is a need for increased foreign language instruction, schools have difficulties not only affording, but providing quality for programs that are already a part of the curriculum.
"We know that costs continue to go up and funds continue to go down. It's difficult to maintain the programs that we currently have, yet try to do what is best for students," Moellenberndt said.
While cost is a concern, Nathan said that the issue can't be viewed as solely about cost.
"If we don't do it, if we don't invest, we will fall behind other countries that speak more than one language." Nathan said. "Their opportunity will be greater than our children's."
Currently the Blissfield district offers Spanish in seventh through 12th grade.
The bill would make the district offer programs at every level, but after cutting $900,000, or about 10 percent, from the budget last year, the district would face tough choices if the bill passes, Moellenberndt said.
Moellenberndt said schools would need more funding if lawmakers impose new mandates.
"That's the dilemma. It's not foreign language - there's nobody that would argue the benefits of that," Moellenberndt said.
The bill is pending in the House Education Committee.