English-Language Learners

Arizona Curtails Bilingual Education

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 15, 2000 7 min read
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Arizona last week became the second state to approve a ballot initiative curtailing bilingual education in the public schools, an action that the measure’s supporters say indicates Americans have grown increasingly disillusioned with the educational approach.

But opponents of Proposition 203 said that the measure appealed to anti- immigrant sentiment and that its passage underscores their belief that the public misunderstands the teaching method and its philosophical underpinnings.

The proposal passed with a large majority—63 percent to 37 percent—as did a similar initiative 21/2 years ago in California. Both call for replacing bilingual education, in which students are taught academic subjects in their native language while also learning English, with “intensive one-year English immersion.”

“It seems that now twice in a row, measures along these lines have overcome enormous odds in campaigns,” said Ron K. Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who financed both initiatives. The big win for Proposition 203 is “a sign of how strongly people in Arizona feel that children should be taught English as soon as they go to school,” he added. “That same sentiment is true everywhere else.”

“It seems that at some point the national politicians should get the idea that getting rid of bilingual education everywhere in the country is something they should do,” Mr. Unz said. “It would be very nice if I don’t have to go state to state across the country getting rid of bilingual education.”

“Suddenly the tables have shifted,” said Linda Chavez, the president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that favors English immersion. “Instead of opponents of bilingual education having to defend English immersion, it’s now the defenders of bilingual education who are having to prove their case, and I think it’s a very hard case to make.”

But Delia Pompa, the executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education, also based in Washington, said the passage of Proposition 203 demonstrates how little most voters understand about the needs of children who are learning English.

“Who has spoken is voters who went to the polls on that day,” she said. “Typically, these are people who don’t have children in schools or haven’t ever set foot in a bilingual education program.”

Not Letting Up

Ms. Pompa, a former head of the U.S. Department of Education’s bilingual education office, said the initiative process allows voters to throw out bilingual education without any thoughtful consideration of how it could be improved. “We would hope,” she said, “this is the end of the referendums.”

But bilingual education opponents have no intention of letting up on using the initiative process, as long as they can find states that permit citizen-initiated ballot measures and have bilingual education programs in place.

The Center for Equal Opportunity is financing efforts to put an anti-bilingual measure on the 2002 Colorado ballot. Another strategy under consideration is to run initiatives in a bloc of smaller states that permit such ballot measures, Ms. Chavez said. States with bilingual programs that don’t allow lawmaking through the initiative process include Illinois, New York, and Texas.

Some observers suggest bilingual education opponents have a built-in advantage in getting such initiatives passed because any ballot language promoting English generally strikes a chord with voters, and they often misinterpret the term “bilingual education.”

“You just run bilingual education up a flagpole, and there’s just a whole lot of opinion that it’s not American,” said Michael W. Kirst, a Stanford University education professor who has studied ballot measures in California and Oregon. “You’re tapping into the feeling that English is the key to a common culture, and bilingual education is running against that by maintaining a separate language and thus a separate culture. “

He noted that in California, Mr. Unz spent about $1 million on the Proposition 227 campaign, a paltry amount compared with what backers of other initiatives in the state tend to spend. In Arizona, Mr. Unz, along with several minor donors, spent $172,000, mostly to pay for gathering signatures. Opponents spent $312,000, primarily for advertising and public-awareness efforts.

M. Jean Johnson, the senior vice president of Public Agenda, a nonprofit research organization in New York City that studies public opinion on education issues, said a large gap of understanding about bilingual education separates bilingual educators and parents, even Hispanic parents.

A 1998 public opinion survey by the group found that two in three parents said it was more important for public schools to teach English as quickly as possible to new immigrants, even if those students fall behind in other subjects. Nearly the same percentage of Hispanic parents agreed.

“For policymakers, bilingual education implies programs where children are getting coursework in their native language while learning English,” she said. “Parents talk about bilingual education as helping children to learn English or English- as-a-second-language programs.”

Unanswered Questions

Arizona’s passage of Proposition 203 raises myriad issues that state officials will have to resolve in the coming weeks, said Laura Penny, a spokeswoman for the state education department. For example, the law doesn’t specify a start date, although the department anticipates implementation by fall 2001.

The state also will have to determine what constitutes an English-immersion program. “The initiative talks about one year, and English being the primary language of instruction,” Ms. Penney said, “but what does that mean when you get a teacher up in front of the classroom?”

Some Hispanic advocacy groups, including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, are considering filing a lawsuit to try to block implementation of the proposition. Hector O. Villagra, a MALDEF staff lawyer, argued that the proposition violates the civil rights of limited-English-proficient students under federal law. MALDEF lost a federal lawsuit making that same claim against Proposition 227 in California.

But Mr. Villagra said the chances of winning such a claim against Proposition 203 were better because, unlike Proposition 227, the Arizona initiative makes it nearly impossible for parents to seek waivers that would permit some bilingual education programs to continue.

State officials wonder how the new mandate will mesh with existing legal obligations to LEP students. Just last month, a federal judge ordered Arizona to conduct a cost analysis of programs for LEP students after it lost a lawsuit brought by the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest. The state was found guilty of having underfunded such programs for the past 10 years.

Alejandra Sotomayor, a bilingual educator at Wakefield Middle School in Tucson and a spokeswoman for English Plus More, a group formed to oppose Proposition 203, said the measure had disabled her as a teacher. “You cut my tongue, took off my hands, and said, ‘Go teach the children,’ ” she said.

The proposition’s passage also suggests “racism is alive and well in Arizona,” she maintained, suggesting that supporters eitherdidn’t understand it or were trying to send an unwelcoming message to immigrants.

But state Rep. Laura Knaperek, a Republican who serves on the education committee in the Arizona House of Representatives, countered that Proposition 203 passed in part because of bilingual education advocates’ unwillingness to make needed changes.

“The system has not worked for a long time for kids. Families and teachers within that system saw that and courageously came forward with this initiative,” said Ms. Knaperek, who initially opposed the initiative on the grounds that it would be better to bring about improvement through legislation. “I believe a better piece of public policy comes out of the legislature ... because people vote sometimes on emotion,” she said.

But this fall, she reversed her position, saying that bilingual educators weren’t making enough progress in implementing reform legislation that she co-sponsored last year.

Ms. Knaperek acknowledged that voters who supported Proposition 203 didn’t understand “every detail” about the measure, but she maintained that they understood “the general idea of what was going on in the past and how it would change things.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2000 edition of Education Week as Arizona Curtails Bilingual Education


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