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English-Only Advocate Uses Ariz. State Office To Carry Out Mission

By Mary Ann Zehr — January 31, 2006 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 6 min read
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Corrected: This story incorrectly identified Jaime Molera, who was formerly Arizona’s schools chief, as a Democrat. He is a Republican. The article also misspelled his name.

Waging a tireless campaign for Proposition 203, the 2000 ballot measure that curtailed bilingual education in Arizona, made Margaret Garcia Dugan one of the state’s most controversial figures. It also turned out to be a pretty good career move.

Today, as the deputy superintendent of public instruction, she is the No. 2 person in the Arizona Department of Education, where she helps form state policy for English-language learners.

Margaret Garcia Dugan, Arizona's deputy superintendent for public instruction, prepares for a recent meeting at the state Capitol. She oversees state policy for English-learners.

Ms. Dugan, who was raised in a Spanish-speaking home in Bisbee, Ariz., acknowledges that not a single statewide education organization has supported her views on how to address the needs of the state’s 160,000 English-language learners. Yet, largely through pluck and persistence, she continues to play a major role in determining how the state educates immigrant children and the U.S.-born children of immigrants.

“I worked so hard to get [Proposition 203] passed,” Ms. Dugan said here recently in explaining why she had exchanged her jobs as the principal of Glendale High School and then as an administrator for the Glendale Union High School District for a state office job. “I wanted to see it implemented.”

Even Ms. Dugan’s critics say she is sincere about wanting the best for students who must learn to read and write English. But that doesn’t mean they’ll ever agree with her on how to get that done.

It also dismays some education scholars that she doesn’t put more stock in research on the best practices for teaching English-language learners. Most research in the field favors bilingual methods, in which students are taught some subjects in their native language as they learn English, over English-only methods.

At the same time, though, scholars have found it hard to discredit her views, given that Ms. Dugan learned English through English-only methods in a public kindergarten.

To Ms. Dugan, it makes perfect sense that she’s a second-language learner of Mexican heritage who is opposed to bilingual education. She speaks English without any trace of an accent and says it has long been her dominant language. She still speaks Spanish sometimes with her mother, but doesn’t consider herself fluent.

If English-only methods aren’t superior to bilingual education, “how come so many people in my age group learned English?” she asked during a Jan. 17 interview in her office in downtown Phoenix.

Polarizing Issue

At 55, Ms. Dugan is tall and thin and looks like the consummate professional on this sunny winter day in a chocolate-brown pantsuit.

Ms. Dugan is married to her high school sweetheart, Michael Dugan, an accountant. They have one son, who is 25. In her spare time, Ms. Dugan helps alleviate the stress that comes with her job by practicing Chinese kickboxing, a form of martial arts. She trains for one hour, three times a week.

The fighting spirit that she brings to public policy caught the attention of Tom Horne after he was elected Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction in 2003.

Mr. Horne, a Republican, campaigned on a pledge to enforce Proposition 203 more strictly than did his predecessor, Republican Jaime Molera. To help follow up on his promise, he hired Ms. Dugan and put her in charge of carrying out the law.

While the law permitted some bilingual education to continue if parents requested waivers of English-only classrooms for their children, Mr. Horne and Ms. Dugan have since persuaded the Arizona state board of education to approve policies that tightened the criteria for those waivers.

Ms. Dugan believes Proposition 203 has improved education for English-language learners. Arizona researchers who specialize on language acquisition disagree and point to analyses of test scores on state academic tests.

Soon after Ms. Dugan joined the education agency, the state board approved her proposal to require all Arizona teachers to take a minimum of 15 hours of training on how to work with English-language learners, with an additional 45 hours required at some time in the future. “We haven’t found any research that says 15 hours helps address underperformance of English-language learners,” said Eugene Garcia, the dean of the school of education at Arizona State University in Tempe, who advocated more extensive preparation. “How did she identify 15 hours? I have no idea.”

Ms. Dugan says 15 hours is enough time to cover teaching strategies for English-language learners.

Experience vs. Research

Some academic experts in the state find it frustrating that Ms. Dugan doesn’t pay more attention to research.

“She’s got a lot of gut-level, personal-experience kind of information she uses to form her policy decisions,” said Jeff MacSwan, an associate professor of language and literacy at Arizona State’s college of education, who defended bilingual education in debates against Ms. Dugan during the Proposition 203 campaign. “You need to keep in mind what’s going on generally, not just what you happen to see.”

Ms. Dugan concedes that she dismisses national research that says bilingual education has an edge over English-only methods. “I think most of the studies are invalid. They start out with the theory before the research,” she said.

She relies more on her experience as a former English teacher and high school principal, when she noticed that Spanish-speaking children from bilingual education programs weren’t learning English well by the time they reached high school.

“Bilingual education in Arizona was pretty remedial,” she said of the time before the ballot initiative. “I really felt bilingual education was hurting kids. I kept thinking back to my own upbringing and thinking, ‘What if I had been born in this time?’ ”

Federal Case

To her credit, Mr. MacSwan added, Ms. Dugan hasn’t focused on English-language learners for political reasons. “I think she is sincere,” he said, “but in my opinion is very wrong in terms of what is best for kids.”

Hector Ayala, an English teacher at Cholla High School in Tucson, Ariz., was a leader with Ms. Dugan on the Proposition 203 campaign.

Mr. Ayala admires Ms. Dugan’s courage.

“People were afraid of siding with us. There were teachers who said they would have signed the petition, but were afraid of ramifications,” Mr. Ayala said. “She exercised her freedom of speech to the hilt, and I thought it was great.”

Bilingual education is not Ms. Dugan’s only battlefront.

A federal judge ruled six years ago in the Flores v. Arizona court case that Arizona doesn’t spend enough on educating English-language learners. In a December ruling, the judge threatened to fine the state if it didn’t come up with a solution by Jan. 24. Last week, the state missed that deadline. Meanwhile, state officials were trying to work out their differences over legislative proposals.

In a move that particularly irked Ms. Dugan, the judge also ruled the state couldn’t require English-language learners to pass a high school exit exam—part of Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards, the state testing system—to get a high school diploma until the state showed that programs for such students were working.

The state filed motions on Jan. 17 appealing the court decision. Ms. Dugan included an affidavit challenging the decision to exclude English-language learners from the exit exam.

“I think it’s a slap in the face to our English-language learners,” she said about the exclusion. “I think it’s a throwback to social promotion to kids for not doing the work.”

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