English-Language Learners

Campaigns To Curtail Bilingual Ed. Advance in Colorado, Arizona

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 07, 2000 4 min read

As Arizona moved closer to placing a California-style initiative to curtail bilingual education on its statewide ballot in November, activists last week launched an effort to put a similar question before voters next Election Day in Colorado as well.

Both ballot measures would be based loosely on Proposition 227, the measure passed by California voters in 1998 that aimed to replace most bilingual education programs there with one-year English-immersion programs.

In Arizona, organizers have gathered enough signatures from voters for the proposal to appear on the fall ballot, Maria E. Mendoza, the chairwoman of English for the Children in Arizona, said last week. She said her organization expected to file the 101,762 required signatures by July 6, the state deadline.

“We’re saying we’re concerned about minority students because they are not taught English academics,” Ms. Mendoza said. “They’re segregated through bilingual education. This is against their civil rights.”

Meanwhile, the Washington-based One Nation Indivisible held a press conference in Denver last week announcing it had begun to gather signatures for a Colorado initiative that would aim to replace bilingual education with English-immersion classes. In Colorado, organizers must file 62,700 signatures by Aug. 7.

Both proposed initiatives call for schools to provide English-immersion classes to limited-English-proficient children as the presumed method of instruction in schools, permitting bilingual programs only through a waiver process for parents.

Details Differ

Under the proposed Arizona measure, waivers would not be permitted for children unless they already knew English or were age 10 or older. The Colorado initiative would allow waivers for children in all grades.

But the Colorado initiative says the English-immersion classes must be “all” in English. By contrast, the Arizona proposal says such classes must be “nearly all” in English, the same wording that is used in Proposition 227.

Both the efforts in Arizona and Colorado are financially backed by organizers living beyond state borders who have spoken at a national level against bilingual education. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron K. Unz, the chairman of the Los Angeles-based English for the Children who paid for the campaign to put Proposition 227 on the California ballot, has financed the gathering of signatures in Arizona.

In Colorado, the petition drive is being paid for by One Nation Indivisible, a nonprofit organization that monitors issues affecting minority groups.

Linda Chavez, the president of One Nation Indivisible, said her organization—an offshoot of the Washington-based Center for Equal Opportunity, which she also heads—had targeted Colorado for the launch of an English-immersion proposition in an attempt to foster a national movement to reform bilingual education.

“If both Arizona and Colorado adopt this, I think it’s the handwriting on the wall. I’d hope that folks in Washington, including Congress, would look at reforming the whole system,’' she said. “It’s been a great disappointment to me that the Republican-controlled Congress has done nothing on this issue but pour more money into already failed bilingual programs.”

But Delia Pompa, the executive director of the Washington-based National Association for Bilingual Education, disagreed.

“Washington has been reforming bilingual education for some time,” said Ms. Pompa, who formerly headed the office of bilingual education and minority-languages affairs in the U.S. Department of Education. “Like all high-quality education programs, bilingual education needs to evolve and adapt, and I think that’s been happening.”

In the first year of Proposition 227’s implementation in California, the percentage of the state’s 1.4 million limited-English- proficient children who were enrolled in bilingual education programs dropped from 29 percent to 12 percent. Its proponents credit the law with raising test scores and making students fluent in English more quickly. But critics say the law has not been in effect for long enough to have shown such effects.

Ms. Pompa argued that Proposition 227 had been anything but a success and said she is concerned that such measures advance a “one-size-fits-all program” that fails to meet children’s diverse learning needs, as she believes existing programs do.

“People who push these initiatives are saying do away with all of that and put in place one methodology—one year in special language instruction, and after that the kids have to fit into these programs that make no accommodations for their language needs,” she said.

Wording Challenged

Jorge E. Amselle, a spokesman for One Nation Indivisible who has handled the legwork for the Colorado campaign, said last week it appears to be more difficult in Colorado than in California and Arizona to get an initiative placed on the ballet.

In Colorado, the proposed measure must pass the muster of a title board, which determines if the initiative meets state requirements by addressing only one subject and being fairly described to voters in its title and summary.

Opponents of the proposed initiative filed a brief in the state supreme court last week challenging the title board’s decision that the initiative met those requirements.

If the court decides any language of the proposal must be changed, the signatures gathered up to that point would be considered invalid, and the measure would be unlikely to make it onto the ballot this coming fall, Mr. Amselle said.

Kathy C. Escamilla, a professor of education at the University of Colorado, Boulder, predicted that voters’ strong support of local control of education in Colorado was more likely to defeat the initiative in the long run than court decisions.

“The state prescribes very little. Most people are very happy with that,” she said. “This poses a significant challenge to local control.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2000 edition of Education Week as Campaigns To Curtail Bilingual Ed. Advance in Colorado, Arizona


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