Federal Intimidation, Lack of Local Leadership

Bilingual Legal Muddle has Schools Under Fire

When Arizona voters overwhelmingly opted to place restrictions on bilingual education last fall, education and legal authorities were laden with a sober and difficult responsibility: Implement a complex, emotionally charged new law, and do it quickly and with ringing clarity.

So far, so bad.

Authorities, both federal and local, are stumbling badly at their single most important task of giving educators — and, by extension, thousands of affected students — vitally important direction.

First, the Office of Civil Rights for the federal Education Department responded to the passage of Arizona’s Proposition 203 with an ominous letter to nine Arizona school districts with which it had signed consent agreements settling civil-rights complaints, mostly regarding insufficient bilingual education services.

The feds warned them that passage of Proposition 203 last fall “does not repeal or reverse federal law,” strongly suggesting — but not explicitly declaring — that adhering to the new state law may draw them into federal court.

As a result, at least one intimidated school district has hired nine additional bilingual education instructors — teachers trained to instruct children in precisely the pedagogy Arizona voters rejected last fall.

That is not direction. It is intimidation. The Arizona Republic was no fan of Proposition 203 and, in fact, opposed it, but we are even less enamored of arrogant, distant federal bureaucrats imposing their ideological will on Arizona schools.

But as matters progress, they get more muddled.

On Jan. 9, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan rocked a meeting of Scottsdale school officials by suggesting her office would maintain a relatively hands-off policy regarding oversight of the new policy.

“Do what you want and make it work and nobody is going to go ballistic,” she said.

Well, lots of people went ballistic, since Keegan’s implication clearly was that districts were free to continue the status quo (and ignore the law) as long as test scores showed students doing better. Proposition 203 holds school board officials and others personally liable if they fail to enact its provisions. Blithe suggestions that they can just do anything they want as long as it works out in the end can’t make them sleep much better at night.

Keegan has since backed away from that ill-conceived invitation, but the damage is done. Districts that in November were merely uncertain how to proceed in teaching kids English now are completely bewildered.

At least Attorney General Janet Napolitano is attacking the complex issue with a measure of professional authority. Napolitano last week approved Keegan’s timetable for implementing Proposition 203 by next school year, as the ballot measure stipulates. Her analysis also gave some comfort to timorous school officials worrying over their personal liability, noting that the new law referred to violators who “willfully and repeatedly refuse(s) to implement the terms of this statute.”

We await Napolitano’s guidance on other issues critical to the education of these young Arizonans, including whether there truly are potential conflicts between Proposition 203 and the federal consent agreements, and, more importantly, some common-sense guidelines regarding teacher use of basic Spanish in the classroom with children who arrive without any knowledge of English at all. Also unclear is the impact of the new law on English-as-a-second-language classes and dual language classes, as well as on schools on Indian reservations.

Meanwhile, we await the leadership message on this issue from the Legislature, which has been informed by a federal judge that its funding for the education of limited-English proficient students is abysmal.

A study on the costs of implementing Proposition 203 is under way, and you can bet it will be more than the miserly $150 per student the state has plunked down to date for bilingual education.



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