As communities across the United States face declining revenues and shrinking budgets, local school officials are laying off teachers, increasing classroom sizes and eliminating classes in a wide variety of subjects. But in the northwestern state of Oregon, lawmakers are hoping to add a new subject to the school curriculum - Mandarin Chinese. And they're looking to the Beijing government as a source of funding for Chinese language education.
At St. Mary's School in Medford, Oregon, an 11th-grade class is running through a list of words for traditional Chinese instruments. These 16 and 17-year olds are in their fourth year of learning Mandarin Chinese.
Mandarin Chinese language classes are a popular choice
Carly Irvine is not sure when she'll use her Chinese language skills outside the classroom. But she figures that day will come. "Since China and America are working so closely and our relationship is growing more and more," she points out. "I think it will be very important in the future to know Chinese," Irvine adds.
St. Mary's added Mandarin to its foreign language curriculum in 2005, and two years ago, became the first school in the country to sign up for the Confucius classroom program.
Here's how it works: The Chinese ministry of education sends a teacher to a school in the United States, pays about half of that teacher's salary and living expenses, and supplies educational materials such as books and computer programs.
St. Mary's principal, Frank Phillips, says parents of some of the students at the private college-prep school were skeptical when Mandarin classes were first offered. "It was so off-beat and weird then," he recalls. "We got a lot of feedback from parents, 'Why would you teach Chinese off all things? Why not Spanish?'" St. Mary's does offer Spanish, along with German and Latin. But Phillips says knowing Chinese will give his students an advantage in a world where China is fast becoming a global economic superpower.
Funding source worries some, wins support of others
He admits the idea of accepting money from the government in Beijing raises eyebrows in his southern Oregon community. "The question I always get is, 'Is this a gigantic propaganda move, is this an evil Communist plot on the part of China?' That's the number one kind of lingering Cold War suspicion about this program. From what I can detect, having been involved in it for two years, I see none of that," Phillips says.
In fact, the Chinese language education program has won the support of the community's representative in the state legislature. Dennis Richardson even sat in on some classes. He has his own concerns over alleged human rights violations by the Chinese government. But he thinks it's okay to take the money. "We can do more good [by] setting an example and being friends and business associates than we can by ostracizing them," he reasons.
Richardson is among several Oregon lawmakers who have been pushing their colleagues to fund more Chinese language education in Oregon's public schools. While a handful of districts do offer it, efforts to expand the classes have fallen flat in the legislature, in part due to concerns over cost. Richardson says the Confucius classroom program is a way around much of the funding dilemma.
Language forms the basis for broader exchange
Back at St. Mary's, teacher Zheng Ling continues her lesson on Chinese music by playing examples of each instrument. She came to Medford from China in 2008 to teach. She says one of her goals is to help American students learn more about her homeland. "People do not know much about China, especially the latest developments. So I think this is a chance for them to know more about China, what China is really like. It's quite different from what it was 20 years ago," Ling says.
And 20 years from now, say advocates of teaching Mandarin, China will play an even bigger role on the global stage.
For now, St. Mary's remains the only school in Oregon to take part in the Confucius classroom program. But the program is offered in more than 50 other schools and universities across the United States and around the world and in more than three dozen countries including Argentina, Pakistan, Kenya and Russia.