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Oregon Ballot Proposal Seeks to Cap Some ELL Services

By Mary Ann Zehr — July 15, 2008 2 min read
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Supporters of a proposed Oregon ballot initiative that would put a two-year cap on the amount of time that English-language learners could receive instruction in their native languages or take English-as-a-second-language classes are looking forward to the November ballot, now that they have gathered enough signatures to put the measure up for a statewide vote.

The proposed statutory amendment, which state election officials last month said had received enough backing to be voted on Nov. 4, says that public school students who aren’t proficient in English “shall be immersed in English, not sidelined for an extended period of time, but mainstreamed with English-speaking students in the shortest time possible.”

Supporters gathered the 82,769 voter signatures needed to put the measure before voters statewide, said Carla Corbin, a compliance specialist for the elections division of the Oregon secretary of state’s office. She said the measure would be officially certified Aug. 2 and assigned a number. Currently, it is Initiative Petition 19.

Since 1998, voters in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts have approved ballot initiatives that have greatly curtailed bilingual education in those states.

Bill Sizemore, who once lost a race for governor in Oregon and registered the proposed initiative, said in an e-mail message that “the current six-year ESL bilingual education approach sidelines bright, capable kids, who could easily be taught English and mainstreamed.”

Learning the Language

Mary Ann Zehr tackles difficult policy questions and explores learning innovations for English-language learners on her Learning the Language blog.

But after the announcement that a proposal will be put on the Oregon ballot, more than a dozen immigrant- and refugee-rights organizations in that state officially formed a coalition to fight it, according to Margot P. Kniffin, a spokeswoman for the Center for Intercultural Organizing, based in Portland, Ore.

“Right now, students have as long as they need in ESL classes before they go into all-English classes,” Ms. Kniffin said.

She said the proposal aims at “limiting the opportunity of students to succeed, in that they don’t have the time they need to learn English.”

Ambiguous Wording

The proposal says that English-learners who enter public schools in kindergarten through 4th grade should receive “English immersion” classes for no more than a year, that students entering in 5th grade through 8th grade should receive such classes for no more than a year and a half, and that students entering in grades 9-12 shouldn’t receive such classes for more than two years.

But the proposal’s ambiguous wording—particularly its use of the term “English-immersion programs”—has caused confusion and some concern among advocates.

The proposal doesn’t define what it means by “English immersion.” The Oregon initiative implies that English-immersion programs include instruction in students’ native languages.

But in the state ballot measures in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts, the term “structured English immersion” or “sheltered English immersion” was used to describe programs that use only English for instruction.

The Oregon proposal defines a “non-English-speaking student” as a student whose “primary language is a language other than English and the student is not capable of being taught in English.”

The one-page text of the measure also says the proposed two-year limit on bilingual education is meant “to insure the cessation of the long-term ESL programs currently in use in many of the public schools in Oregon ...”

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A version of this article appeared in the July 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as Oregon Ballot Proposal Seeks to Cap Some ELL Services

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