The Arkansas Senate passed a bill last week that would require all high schools in the state to offer Spanish among their foreign-language offerings, an unusual move that the bill’s author said could give Arkansas an economic edge in an era of globalization.
Sen. Jodie Mahoney, a Democrat who sponsored the legislation and has unsuccessfully tried to get a similar bill passed in previous sessions, said the proposal could “economically advance the state and our citizens” because of Arkansas’ proximity to Mexico. He also cited an increasing need for Arkansas residents to better communicate with Mexicans because of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.
Mr. Mahoney anticipates that the state’s need to interact with people from Spanish-speaking countries will increase because the United States is negotiating NAFTA-like pacts with several other Latin American countries.
He said he was “tickled” the bill, which had never been taken up for a vote previously, was approved by the Senate but disappointed it passed by only a narrow margin—18-13. The Arkansas House is expected to vote on the measure this week.
Most states, including Arkansas, require high schools to offer a foreign language but don’t specify which languages should be taught. “I’m not aware of states that are requiring a specific language,” said Harriet Barnett, a consultant for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages in Yonkers, N.Y.
But while Ms. Barnett said that she supports requiring all high schools to offer a foreign language, she doesn’t endorse mandating a specific language because students have different reasons and motivations for choosing which language they wish to study.
“We have to look at the broader picture,” she said. “Students go outside the state.”
Need for Teachers
Arkansas currently requires that high schools provide at least two years of one foreign language, though the state doesn’t require students to study a language to earn a diploma. According to the Arkansas Department of Education, 87 percent of the state’s high schools now offer Spanish.
Thirteen percent of Arkansas high schools would have to start Spanish programs if the measure passes. The law wouldn’t go into effect until at least 2005, so schools would have time to train or recruit Spanish teachers.
Brenda L. Matthews, the special legislative assistant to Raymond Simon, the Arkansas state superintendent, said a major challenge in implementing the measure would be to find an adequate number of Spanish teachers.
Forty states have some kind of foreign-language mandate, such as requiring schools to provide at least two years of a foreign language to all students, according to a 1994 survey conducted by the Joint National Committee for Languages and the National Council of State Supervisors of Foreign Languages.
Nationwide, 86 percent of high schools taught a foreign language in 1997—roughly the same percentage as a decade earlier, according to a survey by the Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics.
The popularity of Spanish, however, grew over the same period of time, the survey found. Of the secondary schools with foreign-language programs, the percentage that included Spanish in their offerings rose from 86 percent in 1987 to 93 percent in 1997. Spanish is the most commonly taught language in the United States, followed by French, which decreased in popularity from 1987 to 1997.
A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as Ark. Bill Would Require Spanish Courses