English-Language Learners

Arizona Looks to Its Neighbor in Crafting Plan To Take to Voters

By Lynn Schnaiberg — June 02, 1999 3 min read

Almost immediately after California voters approved a ballot initiative last June to severely curtail bilingual education in their public schools, pundits and policy analysts wondered whether similar measures would crop up in other states.

In Arizona, the seeds have been sown for what critics of bilingual education hope will be an instant replay of California’s move. (“Will Calif.'s Bellwether Reputation Ring True?,” June 17, 1998.)

A Tucson-based group of parents and teachers is starting to rally support for a ballot measure nearly identical to California’s Proposition 227 that would go before voters in the November 2000 election.

Like California’s, the Arizona proposal calls for limited-English-proficient students to learn English by being taught in English, in most cases, for no more than a year--in specially designed English-immersion programs--before moving into the mainstream.

The Arizona organizers have filed their initiative petition with state election officials and are starting to collect signatures; they need 101,762 by next July to qualify for the 2000 ballot.

The architect of California’s initiative, Ron K. Unz, has pledged financial and organizational help to the Arizona group. Mr. Unz is a multimillionaire Silicon Valley software entrepreneur who in 1994 ran an unsuccessful Republican primary challenge to then-Gov. Pete Wilson. Mr. Unz also recently proposed a ballot measure to overhaul California’s campaign-finance and -disclosure laws.

Depending in part on what test scores show for California’s LEP students this summer, Mr. Unz said in a recent interview that he might launch a “major drive” with copycat English-immersion initiatives in a few other states, such as Colorado and Massachusetts.

‘No Checks and Balances’

Arizona organizers have adopted the California initiative campaign’s name, English for the Children, and share a space on the California group’s World Wide Web site.

But while the Arizona proposal to restrict bilingual education is similar to the one California voters approved, many observers say its mandate for teaching LEP students in English is even stricter.

Likewise, the process embedded in California’s law that allows parents to petition schools for waivers allowing their children to opt out of English immersion and into bilingual education is tighter in Arizona’s proposal.

And, unlike California’s law, the Arizona measure includes a call for yearly student assessment in English and drops the California provision that provides $50 million a year for adult English-as-a-second-language classes.

What is similar is that those seeking change in Arizona say they are frustrated by current bilingual programs. They level charges of legislative and administrative inaction on efforts to ensure quality control or real reform in existing programs.

Hector Ayala, a co-chairman of the Arizona campaign and a high school English teacher in Tucson, said he is convinced that bilingual education has contributed to the high dropout rates among Latino students in his school and others across Arizona.

“There’s been no checks and balances in these programs,” the 43-year-old teacher said.

Opponents Lining Up

After months of wrangling over competing proposals to revamp the Arizona law governing programs for the state’s more than 111,000 LEP students, Gov. Jane Dee Hull last month signed into law a bill that sponsors are calling a stopgap measure designed to jump-start farther-reaching changes next year.

Last year, an estimated 37 percent of the state’s lep students were enrolled in bilingual programs.

Arizona law does not mandate bilingual education; schools must offer either bilingual or ESL programs. Parents may reject their children’s placement in any program, but the compromise bill signed into law aims to arm parents with more information about LEP program options and make it easier to opt out of bilingual or ESL programs. It also sets up a task force to make recommendations by Dec. 1 on improving LEP services.

What remains to be seen is the extent to which Arizona’s proposed initiative will galvanize voters. More than a year before the measure has a shot at going before the electorate, Republican leaders such as Gov. Hull and the state schools chief, Lisa Graham Keegan, say they oppose it as a faulty fix to a complex problem.

“The governor’s belief is there’s a lot of room for improvement in bilingual education, but she’s afraid this would be destructive and not accomplish much in the long run,” said Francie Noyes, Ms. Hull’s spokeswoman. “We don’t want one of those ugly debates here in Arizona.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 02, 1999 edition of Education Week as Arizona Looks to Its Neighbor in Crafting Plan To Take to Voters

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