English-Language Learners

Arizona Grapples With Bilingual Ed. Changes

By Mary Ann Zehr — January 24, 2001 6 min read
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More than two months after Arizona voters passed a law to curb bilingual education, crucial questions on how to implement the measure remain unanswered, leaving confused school district officials scrambling to comply.

State Attorney General Janet Napolitano settled one important matter regarding Proposition 203 last week, when she issued an opinion stating the law will take effect at the beginning of next school year—even though the voter-approved initiative did not specify a time frame.

But other basic questions linger. District administrators, for example, aren’t sure how to proceed with parental waivers that would allow continued bilingual instruction. Nor is it clear whether the state’s existing programs for students who know little or no English, such as English-as-a-second-language classes, match the law’s definition for English immersion.

Further complicating matters, no one seemed to agree last week even on whose job it was to cut through the confusion regarding the law. Similar to a measure passed by California voters in 1998, it seeks to replace bilingual education with “structured English immersion.”

Margaret Garcia Dugan, a high school principal and a co-chairwoman of English for the Children, Arizona, the organization that led efforts to pass the law, said that the state department of education should publish guidelines for districts to follow.

“They need to answer such questions as, ‘What is the role of the students’ native language in the classroom?,’ ” she said. “It is for clarification only. They need to give some examples.”

But Patricia Likens, a spokeswoman for the state education department, indicated that was unlikely. “The onus,” she said, “is on the local governing boards to decide how to abide by this law.”

Said Panfilo H. Contreras, the executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association: “We’re looking for whoever will give us guidance—whether it’s the state board of education, the state department of education, the state legislature, or the courts.”

Opposite Conclusions

Meanwhile, some school officials say they are consulting with their lawyers on how to comply with the new law. And school board members are writing new policies to make language-acquisition programs follow their interpretations.

But those conclusions sometimes vary wildly.

For example, the 12,000-student Roosevelt Elementary School District in Phoenix hopes to increase the number of teachers who can provide bilingual instruction. To do so, it plans to subsidize tuition up to $2,000 for teachers to enroll in Spanish-immersion programs beginning next fall.

The district intends to continue providing bilingual education to a large number of students, while also offering two-way bilingual programs—where native speakers of English and students with another native language learn both in the same classroom—in addition to English immersion.

Superintendent Russell A. Jackson also said his district doesn’t intend to follow the parental-waiver stipulations of Proposition 203 because it has a compliance agreement with the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights to improve services for English-language learners.

Mr. Jackson contends that “the federal requirements supersede that of the state.”

But another district, also among the nine that have compliance agreements with the OCR concerning services to English-language learners, takes a very different stance on how Proposition 203 will affect its programs.

“There’s no question that the number of students in bilingual education will be reduced,” said Stan Paz, the superintendent of the 63,000- student Tucson Unified School District. He said that the district will closely monitor the circumstances under which parental waivers can be offered and expects to grant few.

The OCR hasn’t specifically mentioned “bilingual education” in its guidance to Arizona districts on Proposition 203. But in a letter it sent to the nine districts in the state, it said that “Proposition 203 does not repeal or reverse federal law pertaining to the education of [English-language learners].”

Ambiguities and Arguments

Lisa Graham Keegan, the state superintendent of public instruction, created a stir this month when she implied in a speech to a parents’ group that bilingual education could continue despite passage of Proposition 203.

Lisa Graham Keegan

The Arizona Republic quoted her as saying, “Bilingual programs are successful when kids are speaking two languages, and their academics are on par. Do what you want and make it work, and nobody is going to go ballistic.”

Ms. Keegan was not available last week for comment. Ms. Likens, the education department spokeswoman, said Ms. Keegan had been quoted correctly but had not intended to say that the use of students’ native language in the classroom wouldn’t change under Proposition 203.

“What she is saying is she doesn’t want to see this get to a level ... where people call and say, ‘I heard someone speaking Spanish on campus,’ ” Ms. Likens explained.

How bilingual education fares in the post- Proposition 203 environment could indicate what direction any legal battles over the initiative may take, observed Stephen Montoya, a Phoenix lawyer who specializes in constitutional and civil rights litigation.

“I view the constitutionality of Proposition 203 to be contingent on the flexibility of the waiver,” said Mr. Montoya, who opposed the ballot initiative. “Federal and state law mandate that any ambiguity in the waiver law be construed liberally in favor of parental choice.”

Proposition 203 allows parents to apply for waivers under three circumstances: in the event that the “children already know English,” if children are age 10 or older, or if children have “special individual needs.”

Mr. Montoya sees a loophole for providing bilingual education to a significant number of children under the third circumstance. “What is a special need? A special need, in my opinion, is any individualized need,” he said.

Ms. Dugan, a Proposition 203 proponent, said that sort of talk demonstrates a desire to get around the law rather than follow it. “The initiative is very clear,” she said. “Some of the confusion is based on certain bilingual proponents and advocates still wishing to do what they were doing prior to Proposition 203.”

Legal, Financial Questions

Regardless of how much guidance the state education department or state legislature ends up giving on Proposition 203, officials do have their hands full with another matter relating to the students the new law affects.

In a lawsuit filed by the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest in 1992 and ruled on last January, a federal judge found that Arizona did not adequately finance language-acquisition programs. The judge ordered the state education department last October to produce a cost study of such programs in time for the legislature’s next budget deliberations. Those began this month and could last through March.

Department officials put out a request for proposals in December, but no one offered to complete the project, and the department plans to repeat the process.

Worried that the legislature wouldn’t have anything to work with, Sen. Joe Eddie Lopez, a Democrat who fought against Proposition 203’s passage, led an effort among state senators in his party to produce a cost study of their own. They recently submitted it to the legislature.

That study estimates that the state needs to spend $1,527 each year per limited-English-proficient student in addition to what it spends on the education of regular students, or 10 times the amount it currently spends on each LEP student.

Linda J. Gray, the Republican chairwoman of the state House education committee, said that figure is “going overboard.”

“Why is it that years ago there was no extra money put in, but today, we need extra money to help students learn English?” she asked. “What has changed?”

“What’s key here is whether the legislature does something this session or not,” said Timothy M. Hogan, the Arizona law center’s executive director. “If they don’t do something, I’m going to have to go back to court.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2001 edition of Education Week as Arizona Grapples With Bilingual Ed. Changes


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