Bilingual-ban initiative stirs strong emotions

The ballot initiative asking voters to get rid of bilingual education in Arizona is hot.

Known as Proposition 203, the measure would replace bilingual education instruction with an English immersion program for the 140,000 students not proficient in English, the vast majority of whom are Spanish-speaking immigrants from Mexico.

It also would affect thousands of Native American students in Arizona enrolled in bilingual education programs intended to help preserve native languages and culture.

And it would require children not fluent in English to spend an academic year in an intensive “sheltered” English immersion program where they would be taught English as rapidly as possible, in addition to regular academic subjects such as math and reading.

The question voters must decide in the Nov. 7 general election appears to be simple. Is bilingual education working in Arizona? And if not, should we get rid of it?

But the debate is complex and emotional. Depending on who’s doing the talking, test scores show bilingual education works or it doesn’t.

And there is an ugly side.

There are those who view bilingual education as a threat to English and see Proposition 203 as an opportunity to voice their opposition on everything from illegal immigration to how Spanish is found everywhere.

Others view the measure as anti-Hispanic because it seeks to eliminate a program considered important to preserving the language and culture of a people who have been part of this region for hundreds of years.

Out-of-state financing

Particularly galling to them is that the initiative is being mostly financed not by a grass-roots movement but by a wealthy White conservative from California, Ron Unz. The Silicon Valley entrepreneur successfully financed a similar initiative to end bilingual education in California two years ago.

Complicating the issue further is the fact that the two people primarily responsible for getting Proposition 203 on the ballot, Hector Ayala and Maria Mendoza of Tucson, are both bilingual Latinos and products of English immersion.

In a sense, Proposition 203 is shaping up not as a question over the future of bilingual education in Arizona but as a referendum on issues such as cultural assimilation and immigration.

Issue becomes symbol

“It doesn’t become a referendum on bilingual education. It becomes a symbol for other agendas, and you end up reducing a fairly complex policy issue to sound bites and campaign slogans,” said Laura Penny, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

The state’s top education official, Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan, has refused to support the initiative, although she
“understands some of the frustrations of people who support Proposition 203,” Penny said. “She has said this kind of policy issue shouldn’t be decided at the ballot box.”

Backers of Proposition 203 say bilingual education is a well-intentioned failure that never has worked on a large scale. They say it doesn’t teach immigrant children English, “the language of success,” as originally intended, allowing them instead to languish for years in bilingual education classes taught in the student’s native tongue.

“Bilingual education was (supposed to be) a process to learn English,” said Mendoza, chairwoman of English for the Children, the group spearheading the campaign to pass Proposition 203. “But bilingual educators have strayed from that philosophy, and now they have pushed learning English to the back burner. Now it’s the preservation of culture, heritage and native tongue.”

Opponents of Proposition 203 say it would eliminate bilingual education and replace it with one-size-fits-all English immersion. Children whose parents believe in bilingual education would be denied the right to have it.

Should it pass, the measure will allow parents who want their children in bilingual education to apply for waivers, but the restrictions are so severe that few parents will apply for them and even fewer will receive them,
opponents say.

Different research, results

They contend reams of research show that well-executed bilingual education programs work better than English immersion because children learn English better if they develop strong skills in their native tongue first. By teaching immigrant children in their native tongue until they become proficient in English, the children are less likely to fall behind academically while learning English, they say.

“Kids that go through bilingual education programs are a lot less likely to drop out than kids who don’t,” said Alfredo H. Benavides, an associate professor at Arizona State University’s College of Education and co-editor of the Bilingual Research Journal.

The outcome is children proficient in two languages. And in a global economy, they say, two languages are better than one.

As proof that bilingual education doesn’t work, supporters of Proposition 203 point to California, where test scores among Spanish-speaking students went up after Californians voted to end bilingual education there two years ago.

“Bottom line: It doesn’t work. It’s never worked and therefore we should get rid of it,” Unz said.

He said he agreed to help finance Proposition 203 after meeting with Mendoza and Ayala and hearing the “horror stories” of how bilingual education wasn’t working.

Financing almost 100%

Campaign finance records filed with the Secretary of State’s Office show Unz’s group in California, also called English for the Children, has contributed $169,807 to the campaign to end bilingual education in Arizona,
or 99.85 percent of the $170,057 spent so far on the campaign.

Unz said that was a “pretty good investment” considering the 140,000 children in Arizona classified as limited-English speakers.

In Arizona, opponents of Proposition 203 say test scores in this state tell a different story. For three years in a row, students learning English in bilingual education programs outscored students in English immersion programs at every grade level on the Stanford 9 reading test, according to Arizona Department of Education figures.

They also say that unlike the former situation in California, children with limited English skills are not required to participate in bilingual education in Arizona and parents of children enrolled in bilingual education may remove them whenever they want.

“If we know that Stanford 9 scores are higher in bilingual education compared with English immersion, and we know parents have choices, why would we want to force all of our children into a one-size-fits-all program like English immersion?” asked ASU assistant Professor Jeff MacSwan, a bilingual education specialist.

Blaming bilingual education for low achievement and high dropout rates among Latinos is a mistake because only one in three of the Arizona students classified as limited-English proficiency is enrolled in bilingual education programs, he said.

“The vast majority are in English immersion,” MacSwan added.

Indians view it as threat

Some Native Americans also are uncomfortable with Proposition 203 and view it as a threat to their efforts to maintain or revitalize indigenous languages.

The Navajo Nation, Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and Tohono O’odham Nation governments have passed resolutions opposing Proposition 203.

“I don’t think (people) realize it, but it’s not just a Spanish-English issue,” said Mellor Willie, a Navajo. “It also affects the languages of the Native people where languages are tied to the land. It’s more than a language issue. It’s a cultural issue.”

Unz admitted he did not know how Proposition 203 will affect Native Americans, but he believes it will be minimal, considering relatively few Native Americans are enrolled in bilingual education programs. He also said federally recognized tribal sovereignty should allow Native tribes to override Proposition 203 if it passes.

In fact, as many as 19,000 Navajo children could be denied the right to learn their native language should Proposition 203 pass, said Wayne Holm,
education specialist for the Navajo Nation.

“The ability to speak Navajo is a right every Navajo child should have,” he said. “The language is the carrier of the culture. We feel that access to the language gives you access to the culture. ?

“This is an ugly, ugly, ugly thing. The righteousness of these people to get everybody to do their thing is frightening.”

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-8312.

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