English-Language Learners

‘English-Only’ Laws in Education on Verge of Extinction

By Corey Mitchell — October 23, 2019 5 min read
After a nearly 20-year ban on bilingual education in its public schools, Arizona’s school chief is pledging to get the law repealed in the upcoming legislative session. Known as Proposition 203, Arizona’s statute is the last of the state laws that prohibit using bilingual education to teach English-language learners.
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Just 15 years ago, bilingual education was banned in three states—Arizona, California, and Massachusetts—which altogether educated 40 percent of the nation’s English-language learners.

Now, amid the national embrace of biliteracy and dual-language education, those statewide English-only laws are on the brink of extinction.

In the past three years, voters and lawmakers in California and Massachusetts repealed anti-bilingual education laws, leaving Arizona’s as the last one standing.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman intends to push for a full repeal of the state’s “English for Children” law, during the 2020 legislative session that begins in January and she has support from both Democratic and Republican legislators.

Lawmakers in Arizona already dealt a blow to the bilingual education ban this year, cutting the amount of time English-learners have to spend in mandatory English-only immersion classes from four hours a day to two.

“We should be using evidence-based best practices and giving flexibility to school communities, so our [English-learner] students can more quickly pick up their new language and succeed in the long-term,” Hoffman said in a statement provided to Education Week.

Bilingual activists and the state tangled for decades over the legality of the requirement that ELLs take four hours of English instruction a day—a move that opponents said restricted ELLs’ access to other coursework and minimized their exposure to native English-speaking peers. In 2015, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the state in Flores v. Arizona, rejecting the plaintiffs’ argument that the state’s approach to teaching English-learners violated the federal Equal Educational Opportunities Act, a law that requires states and districts to provide students with appropriate aid to overcome language barriers.

Research-backed bilingual education models often take a different approach, such as mixing native English speakers with English-learners in dual-language classrooms in which students learn English and a second language.

‘Unz Initiatives’

Software developer Ronald Unz, who financed the campaigns to ban bilingual education in Arizona and California, isn’t convinced that a return to bilingual education will benefit English-learners.

Approved in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the laws known as “Unz initiatives” replaced bilingual education with structured- or sheltered-English-immersion programs.

In the early 2000s, Unz and other proponents of California’s English-only law felt vindicated when ELLs’ test scores in English proficiency and reading rose in the first few years after the law passed.

“All the research is done by bilingual activists and bilingual academics and bilingual professors,” Unz said.

“They all predicted getting rid of bilingual education would be a gigantic disaster.”

But evidence began to emerge more than decade ago that the English-only approach was not producing the intended results.

See Also: Teaching America’s English-Language Learners: A Special Report

A U.S. Department of Education-funded study released in 2008 found that states with bilingual education had smaller achievement gaps on the National Assessment of Educational Progress than states with the “Unz initiatives.”

Fifteen years after the law passed, Arizona has one of the nation’s lowest graduation rates for English-learners; roughly 40 percent of English-learners in the class of 2017 earned a high school diploma in four years. That’s 25 percentage points below the national average.

“With the passage of time and the outcomes we were getting, we could see, anybody could see, that it wasn’t working,” said Delia Pompa, a senior fellow for education policy at the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigration Policy.

Pompa was the head of the U.S. Department of Education’s bilingual education office and then the National Association of Bilingual Education during the years that voters passed the “Unz initiatives.”

The accountability movement in K-12 education ushered in by the No Child Left Behind Act led to the undoing of the English-only laws because districts had to closely monitor the progress of all students, including English-learners, she said.

“There was a mistaken notion that if you just expected these kids to speak English and work harder at it, they would do it. It was clear that these kids weren’t doing well,” Pompa said. “I don’t think it’s an accident that you kind of saw a domino effect with these [laws].”

Turning Tide

Despite the mounting evidence, the tide against the English-only education laws did not begin to turn until 2016.

That’s when California voters passed Proposition 58, which effectively repealed that state’s Unz initiative: Parents there no longer have to sign waivers if they want their children to participate in bilingual education or dual-language immersion.

A year later, Massachusetts lawmakers passed the LOOK Act, an acronym for “language opportunity for our kids.”

As in California, Massachusetts districts can now select their own method for teaching English to English-learners.

The push to repeal Proposition 227 in California, also led to the creation of the seal of biliteracy, which grants special recognition to high school graduates who demonstrate fluency in two or more languages. Less than a decade after California introduced the honor, students in nearly 40 states and the District of Columbia can earn recognition for their ability to read, speak, and write in more than one language.

“We are much more enlightened and realize what bilingual students bring to the classroom,” said Santiago Wood, executive director of the National Association of Bilingual Education.

The law has restricted teachers of English-learners, as well as students.

Patricia Sandoval-Taylor, the director of the language acquisition department in the Tucson, Ariz., district, taught in a structured English-immersion classroom after the state’s English-only law passed.

When helping her students define a vocabulary word such as elegant, Sandoval-Taylor said she was prohibited from using the Spanish equivalent, elegante, to help her students make the connection.

“Even though I knew their primary language and could help them with that tool, I instead had to use English only,” Sandoval-Taylor said.

In Tucson, English-learners must prove their proficiency in English before they’re allowed to enroll in dual-language programs. But native English-speaking students don’t have to prove their proficiency in another language in order to enroll in dual-language.

Lisa Graham Keegan, who served as Arizona’s state schools superintendent when the English-only law passed and neither supported nor opposed it at the time, said some of the state’s highest performing schools, especially those with significant English-learner populations, simply ignored the law.

“The nonsense that occurs when we deny children the opportunity to use and develop their native language can be both demoralizing and counterproductive,” Keegan said.

“Our best examples of teaching English well do so with great respect to, and use of, the native language.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 30, 2019 edition of Education Week as State Bans on Bilingual Ed. Nearly Extinct


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