A decidedly pro-bilingual education audience turned hostile Tuesday during a debate over Proposition 203, the controversial initiative to dismantle bilingual education in Arizona.

The two-hour debate at ASU West degraded at times into personal attacks and revealed the emotional volatility surrounding the proposal, which would require teachers across the state to teach all children in English rather than their native language.

The initiative will appear on the Nov. 7 ballot.

During one of the most heated exchanges, audience member Alfredo H.
Benavides, an associate professor at ASU’s College of Education in Tempe,
attacked panelist Margaret Garcia-Dugan for supporting a proposal he said would deny parents the choice of enrolling their children in bilingual education programs.

“What gives you the moral authority to decide for them,” Benavides yelled at Garcia-Dugan, the principal of Glendale High School.

“What gives you the moral authority to place all children with Hispanic surnames in bilingual education,” Garcia-Dugan fired back, referring to one of the alleged flaws in the program.

Another member among the 100-strong audience, C. Alejandra Elenes, accused Prop. 203 supporters of using bilingual education as a scapegoat for low achievement among Latino students when other factors exist, including poverty.

“The achievement among Mexican-Americans is low. But it’s very easy to scapegoat bilingual education. The problem is an educational system that is not set up for these kids to succeed,” said Elenes, an associate professor of women’s studies at ASU West.

“The U.S. is the only nation that sees bilingualism as a deficiency. It doesn’t make sense in this global economy.”

The debate was presented by ASU West’s Hispanic Honor Society and pitted Prop. 203 supporters Garcia-Dugan and Glendale parent Norma Alvarez against opponents John Wann, principal of Valley View Elementary School, and Jayni Flores of the Arizona Association for Bilingual Education.

Garcia-Dugan characterized bilingual education as failed experiment that is preventing Spanish-speaking immigrant children from learning English as intended and therefore denying them the best chances for success.

“English is the language of commerce,” Dugan said. “Without that skill we are crippling our children.”

Alvarez helped pioneer bilingual education in the Glendale School District but now opposes it. Instead of helping immigrant children learn English, she said, bilingual education has evolved into a program for “Mexican kids to learn only Spanish.”

Wann said he opposes Prop. 203 because it replaces the choice of bilingual education with a one-size-fits-all approach.

“Do you want the government telling your mechanic how to fix your car or your doctor how to treat cancer,” Wann said.

Flores accused Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz of using “lies,
half-truths and distortions” to promote his anti-bilingual education agenda in Arizona. Unz financed a similar initiative in California in 1998.

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