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Chinese Government Pays To Teach Oregon Students

In Oregon's current budget crunch, adding new classroom subjects at public schools may be a hard sell. 

Especially when those classes are in a language few people in Oregon speak:  Mandarin Chinese.  But some Oregon lawmakers are pushing a new funding source for Chinese-language education:  the Chinese government.

Chris Lehman explains.

You probably remember some of your teachers saying "Repeat after me".  But what if they were asking you to repeat this?

(sound of classroom)

 Mandarin Class
Teacher Zheng Ling teaches a Mandarin language class at St. Mary's school in Medford, Oregon.

Here at St. Mary's School in Medford, an 11th-grade class is running through a list of words for traditional Chinese instruments. 

These students are in their fourth year of learning Mandarin Chinese.  So introducing themselves comes as second nature by now.

Carly Irvine:  "Wo jiao Carly"

That's Carly Irvine.  She's not sure when she'll use her Chinese language skills outside the classroom. But she figures that day will come.

Carly Irvine:  "Since China and America are working so closely and our relationship is growing more and more, I think it will be very important in the future to know Chinese."

St. Mary's was the first school in the country to take part in something called the Confucius Classroom program. 

Here's how it works:  The Chinese Ministry of Education sends a teacher to a school in the U.S., 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 the school first started offering Mandarin classes.

Frank Phillips:  "It was so off-beat and weird then.  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 learning Chinese will give his students an advantage in a world where China is fast becoming a global economic superpower. 

He says the idea of accepting money from the Chinese government raises eyebrows in his southern Oregon community.

Frank Phillips:  "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."

In fact, the Chinese language education program has won a fan in the Republican state representative from Medford, Dennis Richardson.  He's even sat in on some on classes.

He has own concerns over alleged human rights violations by the Chinese government.  But he thinks it's okay to take the money.

Dennis Richardson:  "We can do more good setting an example and being friends and business associates than we can by ostracizing them."

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 it 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. 

Back at St. Mary's, teacher Zheng Ling continues her lesson on Chinese music by playing examples of each instrument.

Zheng Ling came to Medford from China last year to teach. She says one of her goals is to help American students learn more about her native land.

Zheng Ling: "People do not know much about China, especially the latest development.  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."

Advocates of teaching Mandarin say that 20 years from now, China will play an even bigger role on the global stage.

St. Mary's remains the only school in Oregon to take part in the Confucius Classroom program.  A similar Chinese-government funded program for universities has taken root at Portland State and the University of Oregon.

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