The battle over bilingual education erupted Wednesday in Arizona with an angry protest over a California-like initiative to abolish the program.
Nearly 100 demonstrators shouted and pressed members of English for the Children of Arizona against a wall in Tucson as the group launched a signature campaign to place its ban on the November 2000 general election ballot.
Accompanied by Ron Unz, the leader of California’s recent law against bilingual education, more than a dozen members of English for the Children registered the initiative later Wednesday with the Secretary of State’s Office in Phoenix.
While raising funds for the Arizona effort, Unz said that Colorado and Massachusetts are possible future targets of initiatives against bilingual education and that he is lobbying the New York Legislature for a ban as well.
At least one leader of the pro-initiative group said he felt threatened by opponents in Tucson.
“We were practically attacked by a mob,” said Hector Ayala, an English teacher at Tucson’s Cholla High School and a founder of the Arizona initiative. “But I don’t think there is one Mexican immigrant who disagrees with us.”
The pro-initiative group held a news conference at El Rio Neighborhood Center in a west-side Hispanic community, where initiative leader Maria Mendoza said the jeers and opposition were expected.
If 101,762 valid voter signatures are gathered by July 6, 2000, and the voters approve, the initiative would reverse Arizona’s bilingual-education law. Instead of teaching English-deficient students in their native language, they would be immersed in English.
Some supporters of bilingual education say English immersion would rob students of their cultural heritage. But Ayala said the bilingual system robs them of their economic future in an English-speaking country.
“They will learn English by doing things in English at school,” he said. “They can eat enchiladas and menudo at home.”
But Hank Oyama, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who joined the pro-bilingual protesters Wednesday, urged Arizonans to heed Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a bilingual education proponent whom he said has told Unz that he is not needed in Arizona.
McCain introduced a resolution in Congress supporting learning English in addition to the language of the home, viewing it as in the national interest to develop more bilingual Americans, he said.
“We consider it an insult when people come and imply that being bilingual is somehow not quite American,” Oyama added.
Several initiative supporters, however, complained of frustration in attempts to withdraw their children from bilingual classes in Tucson and the Valley. More than $70 million is spent on the state’s 94,000 limited-English students every year, and districts do not want to lose the money, critics say.
“It legally segregates them, and it legally leaves them uneducated, so the schools can bring in federal money for these children,” Mendoza said. “That’s what this is about.”
At least one Valley parent agreed.
“We’ve been having a lot of problems with the Glendale Elementary program,” said Norma Alvarez of Glendale. “It’s been a disaster for our kids. They’re not learning.
“If your name is Alvarez, you’re in bilingual classes. They don’t test you. It’s your last name that gets you in. They stay until the eighth grade.”
Pam Santesteban, acting superintendent at the Glendale Elementary School District, accepted the criticism.
“We have two dozen or more different language groups,” she said. “We’re constantly seeking interpreters. It’s like the United Nations.”
While the activists gather signatures, lawmakers are introducing bilingual-education reform bills, and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan is trying to mediate the heated discussion.
Rep. Laura Knaperek, R-Tempe, wants a three-year limit on bilingual classes for any student. Sen. Joe Eddie Lopez, D-south Phoenix, says no limit is needed. His bill would provide $1 million to improve the skills of bilingual teachers.
Keegan said she shares many of the concerns of English for the Children of Arizona. But she worries that an initiative and election campaign to change bilingual education could turn racist and nationalist.
She admits that her office has failed to supervise bilingual programs. The Department of Education did not even submit the required annual reports to the Legislature for several years before 1996-97.
That latest report showed that fewer than 3 percent of bilingual students were moving out of the program and into mainstream classes taught in English.
“They’re languishing,” Keegan said. “It’s a mess. We’re part of that mess. I was at fault.”
Keegan promised a comprehensive report on bilingual education in the next few months and a recommendation to lawmakers by the end of January. She has been meeting with a community advisory group for several weeks.
She predicted that the initiative will appear on the ballot and that Arizona voters will approve it.
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Mike McCloy can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 1-602-444-8111.
Includes information from the Associated Press.