Petitions filed for initiative to dismantle bilingual education

PHOENIX—When 14-year-old Vanessa Abarca began elementary school she spoke only broken English. And despite the wishes of her mother Leticia, who is fluent in English and Spanish, Vanessa was placed in a bilingual education class.

“Vanessa wasn’t learning anything. Her teacher didn’t speak good Spanish and her translations weren’t even correct,” said Abarca, 38 of Glendale. “I knew I had to get her out.”

Abarca persisted, and after a year she was able to petition Vanessa out of bilingual education. Now other Arizona parents may have that option without having to put up a fight.

Abarca was one of several supporters who went to the Secretary of State’s office Tuesday to file petitions for an initiative that could end 30 years of bilingual education in Arizona.

The initiative, sponsored by “English for Children,” is modeled after a similar proposal approved by California voters in 1998.

If it passes Nov. 7, bilingual students would be placed in regular English classes and students not fluent in English would be placed in a one-year English immersion course.

The group turned in what it said were more than 165,000 signatures, far more than the 101,000 required needed to qualify the initiative for the fall ballot. The Secretary of State is now responsible for verifying the signatures.

Currently, $361 million is spent on about 112,000 students for bilingual education in Arizona, said Maria Mendoza, co-chairwoman of the English for Children campaign. She called it a waste of money.

“The time has come to get rid of bilingual education and do away with its problems,” she said. “It is criminal and discriminatory to keep isolating Hispanic children like this.”

John Petrovic, a researcher at Arizona State University’s Center for Bilingual Education and Research, said it would be a mistake to dump bilingual education in Arizona.

“(The campaign) is a mean-spirited overkill and eliminates the choices that are currently available to parents,” he said. “This experiment in California has been a dismal failure, so why should we think that it is going to do any better here?”

Petrovic said that children in bilingual education have consistently out performed children in English immersion programs in regards to standardized testing, which he believes shows how well it is working.

“Kids in English immersion programs consistently fall behind in school and a lot of them drop out because the academic gap between them and the bilingual students widens,” he said. “English immersion is really a hollow choice.”

Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., who is leaving Congress next year but maybe a gubernatorial candidate in 2002, publicly endorsed the measure earlier this month.

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