The much-publicized Arizona legislation known as SB 1070, a criminal statute allowing local law enforcement to demand proof of immigration status based on “reasonable suspicion,” is disturbing and xenophobic. It is a particularly heavy-handed development in a state where unprecedented anti-immigrant sentiment has festered for years. The immigration-related aspects of this backlash have justifiably garnered considerable public attention.
But the state has pursued similarly draconian policies in other arenas, one of them education. This spring, the Arizona Department of Education issued citations to several school districts throughout the state for hiring teachers who speak English with a Spanish accent.
As a civil rights lawyer who advocates for immigrants and low-income students of color in public education, I am alarmed by this development. Several years ago, I represented three Massachusetts teachers fired on the basis of faulty and discriminatory English-fluency tests. My clients were veteran math and science teachers born in Cambodia and Puerto Rico who taught successfully for years in Massachusetts. After years of litigation, we won the case, with full back pay and benefits. My clients have resumed doing what they do best—serving immigrant and refugee students in their community.
The recent Arizona teacher citations—based on an expansive interpretation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act—require the districts to submit plans for corrective action, such as accent-reduction training, and could culminate in reassignment or dismissal. So far, it is not clear what standards of fluency Arizona is using, or how those standards are being applied. My clients’ experiences in Massachusetts have revealed that this is a dangerous road to tread.
This is not the first time Arizona has cracked down on immigrant and English-language-learner students in its public education system. Just this spring, it passed a state education law intended to eliminate ethnic studies in public schools, and Arizona’s efforts to override English-language learners’ federal right to an equal education have been litigated before the U.S. Supreme Court. In that case, Horne v. Flores, the state department of education pursued yet another novel and overly broad interpretation of the No Child Left Behind Act, arguing that it had eviscerated English-language-learner protections in the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974. Fortunately, the court decided the case on other grounds, leaving intact the EEOA.
Schools should be commended—not disciplined—for hiring and retaining staff members who understand their students’ cultures.
Now, reports have surfaced that undocumented families fearful of Senate Bill 1070 are withdrawing their children from Arizona public schools, despite long-standing and undisputed U.S. Supreme Court precedent that undocumented children may attend public schools. Furthermore, SB 1070 and Arizona’s current education policies marginalize all immigrants—regardless of immigration status—and make them feel unwelcome.
What Arizona and other states really need are education policies that welcome all students, and make them feel included and valued. Our schools are becoming increasingly diverse, and need appropriate staffing and resources to adequately serve their pupils. To be effective, teachers must connect with their students. Schools should be commended—not disciplined—for hiring and retaining staff members who understand their students’ cultures. Experienced, credentialed teachers with good track records at teaching English-language learners should not be singled out because they speak accented English. This is especially true in a state like Arizona, which faces a severe teacher shortage.
Schools must also provide professional development for all teachers—including training in English-language-learner teaching methods and cultural awareness. Moreover, schools with large English-language-learner populations should have teaching materials tailored to these students’ needs. Arizona’s students would be better served by improving efforts to bolster teacher training and retention, and making sure schools have appropriate course materials, rather than spending precious resources on questioning the English skills of proven teachers.
A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2010 edition of Education Week