PHOENIX – Bilingual education friends and foes duked it out at
dueling weekend conferences on whether English is being taught in the
classroom and on whether parental choice is allowed.
Arizona bilingual advocates quickly organized a conference on the
same day and at the same hotel as one sponsored by the Center for
Equal Opportunity – a national non-profit organization that opposes
The Center came out on the side of English for the Children
Arizona, the state group that is attempting to abolish bilingual
education through a ballot proposition similar to one passed in
California last year.
The group needs to collect 112,000 signatures for a November 2000
The new Arizona Language Education Council used its Saturday
conference to kick off a yearlong effort to combat the initiative,
said Dan Wegener, the council’s public relations coordinator.
“We need more quality bilingual education programs in Arizona, not
less,” said Julian Sodari, a member of the Phoenix Elementary School
District governing board.
Linda Chavez, a nationally known opponent of bilingual education
who heads the Center for Equal Opportunity, said the center intends
to become more active in Arizona, although it cannot be politically
She personally backs the initiative, although she originally
opposed the one in California.
Chavez favors intensive English immersion. She says bilingual
education delays students’ learning English by overwhelmingly
teaching limited-English students in their native language. She calls
it a “Spanish-language maintenance program.”
Bilingual supporters, however, say that long-term bilingual
education – that uses mostly native language at first and gradually
transitions into more English – is the best way to teach English.
Joseph Farley, associate superintendent of Oceanside Unified
School District near San Diego, said he is a “recovering bilingual
education educator” now that he has seen the effectiveness of English
immersion in his district. Test scores went up for limited-English
students this year, but critics say students throughout California
made equal gains.
Even though an anti-bilingual education group sponsored the main
conference, at least half of its attendees were bilingual-education
supporters, who forwarded most of the questions to panelists.
Much of the debate was about parental choice.
Though Arizona law has long permitted parents to remove their
children from bilingual programs, bilingual education foes say that
some schools refuse to let them out and also place English-speaking
students in those programs.
Starting this school year, a new Arizona law has strengthened
parents’ rights. Before, schools were required to merely notify
parents of the students’ placements, but the law now allows parents
to sign off on that decision.
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said he is pushing for federal legislation
to extend the same parental choice nationwide. He declined to take a
side on the initiative but said bilingual education is “not the best
The legislation will go before the House Education Committee this
week, said Glenn Hamer, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon, a
Phoenix-area Republican who is sponsoring the bill.
Bilingual education advocates criticized the ballot initiative as
restricting parental choice. While California’s proposition allows
parents to request waivers to enroll in bilingual education,
Arizona’s initiative is more restrictive.
However, if 20 students in a school request a program, they can
get it, said Hector Ayala, co-chairman of English for the Children
The opposing sides could be distinguished by buttons in shades of
green. Teal ones read “Bilingual is Beautiful.” Kelly-green pins said
“English for the Children.”
Ayala, a teacher at Cholla High Magnet School, said he thinks he
should wear both pins, as he is for bilingualism, too.
Earlier, Chavez emphasized that she is pro-bilingual but said
bilingual education is failing to teach English. She said the native
language should be learned at home.
Bilingual education opponents, however, believe the other side is
trying to eliminate the native language. “This is an issue of
cultural genocide,” said state Rep. Carlos Avelar, D-Phoenix.