Prop. 203 overlooks bevy of language situations in schools

Jeff MacSwan
Arizona Republic
Thursday, October 26, 2000.

A lot can go haywire when a California software engineer tries to rewrite Arizona's education code. Proposition 203, the English-only schools initiative, is a good example. Its author, Ron Unz, overlooked a few important details.

Nearly a thousand Native Americans marched in downtown Phoenix last week to make this point. They protested Unz's proposal to mandate English-only instruction for students learning English with virtually no exceptions.

Proposition 203 would thereby eliminate all public school programs designed to teach Arizona Indian languages while there's still time to save them from extinction.

In a recent interview with The Arizona Republic, Maria Mendoza, co-chair of the group sponsoring Proposition 203, admitted the oversight. "In all honesty, we were not thinking it would affect them in this way," she said.

But Mendoza went on to offend Native Americans throughout the state by belittling efforts to preserve their ancestral tongues. She accused "tribal leaders" of holding children "as prisoners in their culture and their heritage."

That's not their only oversight. Proposition 203 would disrupt foreign-language education, particularly in the elementary schools.

The initiative says that "foreign-language classes for children who already know English shall be completely unaffected." But there's a catch.

"Children who already know English" are defined as those who score at or above the state average on 3 different standardized tests of English: vocabulary, reading and writing.

So, if Proposition 203 passes, up to 75 percent of all Arizona students will likely be ineligible for instruction in any language but English! And to enroll their children in foreign-language classes, parents would be required to personally visit their children's school each year.

Here's another oversight: What about deaf children in public schools who use American Sign Language? Even if they received a "waiver" of the English-only rule, deaf students would have to endure 30 days of incomprehensible English-only instruction at the start of each school year.

Over the course of elementary school, that works out to 180 days - an entire year's worth of instruction wasted.

Perhaps the most far-reaching blunder in Proposition 203 is its potential impact on English-speaking kids and their classrooms.

The initiative encourages districts to place English learners in regular classrooms after just one year of special instruction. Thus many teachers may be pressured to water down the curriculum and devote enormous attention to children who are still struggling with English.

It's not hard to see how this could negatively affect English-speaking students, especially those who need additional help themselves.

Here's the most absurd thing of all: Proposition 203 offers nothing new. It requires an approach that is already in place in Arizona - English immersion. And under Proposition 203, there are no options: It's English immersion for everybody, like it or not. Current law, by contrast, enables school boards and parents to choose among several options.

According to Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan, Arizona students in bilingual education score "consistently higher" on their achievement tests in English reading than students who are instructed only in English. That should put to rest any claim that bilingual education students don't learn English.

Don't expect the Legislature to save us from the madness. Its hands would be tied. Proposition 203 could be repealed or significantly altered only by another ballot initiative.

Reasonable people can and do disagree about the effectiveness of bilingual education. So why not let freedom of choice prevail? Why not let parents continue to decide what's best for their kids?

Why let a California millionaire with no children of his own and no background in education tell the rest of us how to teach our children? Vote no on Proposition 203.

Jeff MacSwan is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Arizona State University.