WASHINGTON — The Clinton administration declared Tuesday that "Black English" is a form of slang that does not belong in the classroom, and ruled that school districts that recognize the idiom in their teaching cannot use federal funds targeted for bilingual education.
The Oakland school board last week revived a long-brewing linguistic controversy with a unanimous vote declaring that Black English, also known as Ebonics, is not merely a dialect but a language, rooted in a distinct African American culture.
Students who speak it, the board said, should not be criticized or harshly corrected but given special assistance learning standard English, in much the same way as a student who moved from Mexico and spoke only Spanish would receive training in English as a second language. Board members said Oakland would seek federal funds to help pay for its new program.
Education Secretary Richard W. Riley, however, killed that hope even before the Education Department received an official funding request.
"Elevating 'Black English' to the status of a language is not the way to raise standards of achievement in our school and for our students," Riley said in a one-paragraph statement. It concluded with the declaration, "The administration's policy is that 'Ebonics' is a nonstandard form of English and not a foreign language."
The Black English controversy has divided African American leaders. Some have said that recognizing that black students speak differently is the first step toward improving low scholastic achievement among black pupils. In Oakland, for instance, about 53% of the district's 52,000 students are black, and school officials said these students on average have the lowest grades.
But other African Americans, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, said the movement toward Ebonics would limit black students' ability to compete for jobs against people who have mastered standard English.
"I understand the attempt to reach out to these children, but this is an unacceptable surrender borderlining on disgrace," Jackson said Sunday on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press." "It's teaching down to our children and it must never happen."
Oakland school officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
David Frank, a spokesman for Riley, said that he wanted to speak out on the controversy quickly, even before the department received requests for bilingual funding, while the issue was receiving wide public attention.
"We can really close the door on that," Frank said, adding that Riley's decision parallels a similar Education Department policy ruling in 1981.
Clinton signed off on the policy statement Monday while flying back from a visit to meet Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., an administration official said.
Ebonics, according to its devotees, explains why some blacks speak using variations on the verb "to be" in ways at odds with spoken English.