Less than a year after Californians voted to replace bilingual
education in public schools with a year of English immersion, a group
of Arizona voters is pursuing a similar referendum even as the state
Legislature revises the existing program for students who don’t speak
In January, the Arizona Department of Education sent a dismal
report card to the state Legislature on the progress of students
enrolled in Arizona’s programs for students with limited English
proficiency (LEP) which only fueled the growing controversy.
Less than 5 percent of all students in bilingual classes and
classes teaching English as a second language had made enough
progress to be declared proficient in English by the end of 1998.
“We cannot sit idly by and accept results like this,” the report
Tucson English teacher Hector Ayala and education activist Mary
Mendoza launched an anti-bilingual education petition drive the same
month. They need 101,762 signatures by July 6, 2000, to hold a spot
on the ballot the following November.
Mendoza had watched with interest when California’s Proposition
227 passed easily in June. She contacted Ayala, whose complaints
about bilingual education had been published in local newspapers.
Mendoza received advice and public relations support after contacting
Ron Unz, the California software millionaire who financed his state’s
While the petition drive is scarcely more than 2 months old, an
Arizona pollster says the political environment leans toward ending
bilingual education even though a recent poll showed that voters are
“In the last one about a month ago, voters split virtually evenly
almost 45 percent for (bilingual education), 45 percent against and
10 percent undecided,” said Bruce Merrill, director of the Walter
Cronkite Media Center at Arizona State University.
“The only significant demographic is very polarizing politics,”
Merrill said, adding that 75 percent of Republicans support it and 75
percent of Democrats oppose it.
The state’s Hispanic community leaders are divided as well,
Merrill said, even though the movement is being led by Hispanics who
feel that bilingual education has not helped their children. But
Hispanic voter turnout in any given election is usually only 5
percent or 6 percent while the state’s mostly white, mostly
Republican retirees turn out strongly.
It is an emotional issue in Arizona, often referred to as the
birthplace of the national bilingual movement. Three Tucson
educators organized a National Education Association symposium in
their city in 1965 to present a paper – called “The Invisible
Minority” – on the plight of the Mexican-American child in U.S.
The idea of a national bilingual education act sprang from that
meeting, according to Leonard Basurto, director of bilingual
education programs for the Tucson Unified School District. They were
trying to alleviate the high dropout rate among Hispanic students, a
problem that exists today, Basurto said.
Bilingual education backers disrupted the news conference kicking
off the January “English for the Children” petition drive, calling
petition supporters child abusers and Ku Klux Klan members.
“Anyone opposed to bilingual education will henceforth be labeled
ignorant and racist, even if he is Mexican and has a degree,” Ayala
had predicted in a newspaper guest editorial a few months before.
“They want to preserve the native tongue and heritage; this is
what bilingual education has become,” Mendoza said. “Academics has
taken a back seat.”
In the state Legislature, two bills are competing on the issue. A
Republican-sponsored bilingual education reform bill that recently
passed the Arizona House would put a three-year time limit on student
enrollment in bilingual and ESL programs, and also would limit
funding for those programs.
A Democrat-sponsored bill is before the Arizona Senate calling for
the state department of education to set better standards for
bilingual education, and then enforce them, as well as provide an
“escape clause” for parents who want their children out of bilingual
A frequent complaint among parents in Arizona, as in California,
is that school officials frequently ignore their protests that their
children do not need to be in bilingual programs.
Sheri Annis, spokesman for the California anti-bilingual campaign,
said she doubts either piece of legislation, if passed, would derail
the petition drive for a referendum to abolish bilingual education.
“It shows that what they’re doing is too little, too late,” Annis
said. “And it points out the fact that many legislators or
politicians are reluctant to do anything unless they are forcibly
pushed into it.”
Tucson bilingual official Basurto said his school district helped
to write the Senate bill and would have suggested improvements to the
system even before Mendoza and Ayala started their call for a
referendum. The system needs improvement, he said, but the
statistics from the state department of education are contradictory.
Basurto argued that the success of bilingual education programs
cannot be measured strictly by how long a student stays in them.
About 8 percent of the students in the bilingual program will be
considered proficient in English this year in the Tucson district
this year, he said.
“Some people say that’s terrible,” Basurto said. “That means that
92 percent of the students failed, right? That’s not true at all.
Learning a language takes a long time.”
Mendoza feels responsible for the growth of the bilingual movement
in Tucson. She was a lead plaintiff in a successful Tucson school
desegregation lawsuit in 1968. The court ordered the formation of
parent committees to help chart a course for improvements in schools
where, she had argued, minority students were getting a substandard
“We had a lot of parents who didn’t speak English, so when they
sent out the Hispanic educators to talk to these parents, they sold
bilingual education to them,” Mendoza said. “They wanted their
children to be able to read and write in English. The proponents
said, ‘Oh yes, your children will be able to do this in both
Mendoza has been opposed to bilingual education from the onset. A
lot of parents have become disillusioned in the ensuing years, she
said, because they see that their children are failing to read or
write well in English.