Arizona is debating how to teach 112,000 students with limited
English-speaking skills. English for the Children – Arizona has
proposed an initiative for the 2000 election requiring that all
students be placed in English classrooms, unless their parents
request otherwise. The group needs 110,000 signatures to put the
measure on the ballot.
In the third installment of an ongoing Arts & Ideas dialogue on
bilingual education, Republic columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr., a
former substitute teacher and doctoral student in education, and
Margaret Garcia-Dugan, principal of Glendale High School and a state
coordinator of English for the Children – Arizona, discuss the issue.
RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.: Margaret, we agree that bilingual education,
as implemented in Arizona schools, is often a disaster. It’s
discriminatory, arbitrary as to students’ placement in bilingual
classes, mired in bureaucracy and in need of repair.
But the initiative you propose doesn’t fix bilingual education.
It finishes it.
There are purists who don’t believe there should be any Spanish
spoken in a U.S. classroom. But I don’t agree. I’ve found programs
that appear to be working. They include dual-language programs, in
which English-speaking students seem to be learning Spanish while
Spanish-speaking students learn English.
I’ve seen programs that avoid the mistakes that others make.
While bad programs ignore parents’ wishes, I’ve seen good ones whose
directors say they yield to parents. While bad programs are marked
by the neglect of lazy and irresponsible administrators, I’ve seen
good ones where principals and superintendents – often Latino
themselves – keep a hands-on approach. While bad programs rope
students into bilingual tracks because of arbitrary factors like a
Spanish surname or the recommendation of officials at lower grades,
good ones test pupils before placing them.
Are you at all concerned that by eliminating bilingual education
outright, you might be, as the cliche goes, throwing the baby out
with the bathwater and punishing good programs right along with bad
ones? Doesn’t that turn the clock back to the dark days where Latino
students were left to “sink or swim” in English, and many of them did
Also, there’s been a lot of angry criticism directed at your
group, English for the Children – Arizona, by those who prosper and
profit from the current system. You and other Latinos behind the
effort are called “coconuts” (Brown on the outside but White on the
inside) and sellouts. Anglos who agree with you are labeled
There’s also been criticism about the movement’s roots and
motivations. The director of bilingual programs for the Tucson
Unified School District told the Los Angeles Times that your group
isn’t “grass roots.” Others contend that your effort is really a
California import, something foisted upon innocents by trouble-making
How “grass roots”is your cause and to what degree is it influenced
by forces outside the state?
MARGARET GARCIA-DUGAN: First of all, comparing “dual language”
programs to bilingual education programs is like comparing apples to
oranges. Dual-language programs allow all students, regardless of
ethnic origin, to enroll. The curriculum in these programs is taught
to all students in both languages, either in the same classroom by
one or two teachers, or in two different classrooms: one teacher
teaches the curriculum in English, while the other teaches the
curriculum in Spanish and again to all students.
Bilingual education programs are not aimed at all students, but
only at non-native speakers of English, and those students are mainly
And as far as some bilingual programs being effective, I agree.
There are always exceptions. But according to the data, only a few
As for those that are successful, who knows what type of bilingual
program they practice? Teachers shape the programs, so if you talk
to 10 different bilingual teachers from 10 different districts, you
may find 10 different pedagogical practices.
I am not concerned that eliminating bilingual education will
“throw the baby out with the bathwater.” I am more concerned about
the baby drowning in the water.
You can’t tell me the students in bilingual programs are given the
same curriculum as students in mainstream English and other core
classes. Segregating students in bilingual programs impedes their
learning and denies them a quality education.
The Bilingual Education Act of 1968 sought to help non-native-
language speakers of English learn to speak, read and write in
English. Now, bilingual teachers believe that students need to be
taught to speak, read and write in their own language before they are
Our children have been subjected to experimentation. That’s
wrong. As educators, we have a moral obligation, as well as a
constitutional duty, to provide all of Arizona’s children, regardless
of their ethnicity, with the skills necessary to become productive
members of our society. Of these skills, literacy in the English
language is among the most important. If we don’t teach this skill,
we are crippling our children for the future.
As for the claim that we want to turn the clock back to the “dark
days” of English immersion, I’m not sure those days were so dark. I
know of many Latinos who were immersed in English and who became
productive citizens of this country – to name a few, my mother,
father, brothers, sisters and friends who are now politicians,
teachers, lawyers, etc.
But you’re right about criticism directed toward our group,
English for the Children – Arizona. However, we have had much more
positive support from people to continue our work toward getting an
initiative on the ballot in 2000. We have had many educators – who
are closest to the issue – come out to support us.
As for California, we can only hope our initiative is as
successful as Proposition 227. It helps that we have a model, but
we’ve been against what bilingual education is doing to our children
for two decades now.
Let’s have faith in our non-native speakers of English. They can
learn quickly if we, as educators, maintain high standards of
curriculum and high expectations of them.
NAVARRETTE: Again, you and I agree as to the abuses and lack of
standards. We also agree about the importance of English.
But what if schools are so eager to teach students English that
they erase their Spanish in the process? How has that left the
student better than they found him? After all, if the purpose of
education is to contribute to, and improve upon, students’ abilities,
then how is an immersion program that takes an asset – the student’s
natural bilingualism – and erases it consistent with that goal?
Also, aren’t you even a bit concerned about the historical
tendency of public schools to attempt to scrub away students’
cultural differences and force assimilation? Given that history,
there must be some people within today’s public-school system who are
just waiting for another chance to rein in students’ culture.
Won’t this initiative, regardless of its possible merit, offer aid
and comfort to those assimilationists and leave us with students who
all look – and sound – the same? How does that groom future leaders
for the global economy of the 21st century?
Finally, what about those students who may suffer if the
initiative is passed? Aren’t there some immigrant students who
require bilingual education, at least for a few years after arriving
in the country? Without bilingual education, they could fall behind
and be forgotten. What are schools to do to make sure that displaced
students keep up?
GARCIA-DUGAN: I don’t believe there’s any research to prove that
teaching a new language to a student erases the student’s native
language. Students spend half of their day with their parents, and
if their parents wish for them to maintain their native language,
they will converse with their children in their native language.
Besides, students won’t lose their Spanish if they are constantly
exposed to it in their neighborhoods through Spanish-speaking
merchants, television and the like.
Also, I don’t know of any person – much less any teacher – who
wishes to eradicate a student’s ability to speak two languages. The
English immersion classes that the proposed initiative mandates could
translate or teach the cognates of the two languages in order for
students to gain English acquisition.
As a former ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher, I often
showed my Latino students comparisons of the two languages.
So, a teacher in the English immersion class would capitalize on
the similarities between the student’s native language and English
whenever possible. This would facilitate the learning of English.
Bilingual education proponents say that the people who are backing
the English for the Children initiative are against bilingualism.
That’s a scare tactic and it’s not true.
I also don’t believe the tendency of schools is to scrub away
students’ cultural differences to force assimilation. Schools and/or
teachers cannot teach or take away students’ culture. And those
teachers and administrators who think they can are just arrogant.
The only people who can teach and maintain culture for children are
the parents and grandparents of those children, not schools.
Besides, not all Latinos share the exact same culture or values.
For example, you and I are both Latino, but we don’t embrace the
same culture or values to the same degree. Latinos are not cut from
And what about the students – Latino students – who are now
suffering from being in bilingual education? They have not been
given the education they were mandated to receive from the Bilingual
Education Act. They are not able to compete successfully in English
classes and on state and national tests.
And why is it we only offer bilingual classes to Latino children?
Vietnamese, Bosnian and other non-native speaker of English students
are immersed into English classes and are able to learn English. Is
the bilingual education that we know about maintaining Spanish at the
expense of teaching English to our Latino students? Do we believe
Latino students possess the same academic abilities as other
I believe they do. I also believe that they can be held to the
same high academic standards that all other nationalities have been
held to for the past 200 years.
I have a friend who teaches Head Start. She has told me the first
thing that Latino parents request for their children is to learn
English. Why is that? Because they want their children to be
successful and productive.
Our preschools and K-3 programs should begin teaching English to
non-native speakers of English as soon as they enroll in the system.
David Sousa, author of How the Brain Learns, believes that children
need to be taught a second language from the age of 0 to 10. This is
when the brain demands certain types of input in order to create or
stabilize long-lasting structures. And yet, bilingual proponents
want to delay the teaching of English because they believe students
can’t learn a new language until they are literate in their native
Lastly, we can groom all students, including Latino students, to
be future leaders in the global economy of the next century by
affording them the same opportunity we offer other students: mastery
of the English language.
NAVARRETTE: You say a couple of things that could support the
argument of bilingual proponents.
For instance, you say that in English immersion classes, a teacher
uses a student’s ability in one language (Spanish) to help him learn
another (English). Isn’t that what bilingual education is supposed
Also, you say that children are most apt to pick up new languages
early in life. Bilingual educators say the same thing in arguing
that children don’t have to choose between languages.
It sounds like you might not be so far apart from your opponents.
If so, is there any hope of avoiding war?
Also, the state Legislature could still pass something. The
Knaperek bill (House Bill 2387, proposed by Rep. Laura Knaperek, R-
Tempe) would impose a three-year limit on bilingual funding. Would
that be enough reform? Would it be enough to squash the initiative,
as some legislators hope? Or has the die been cast?
GARCIA-DUGAN: Let’s get something straight. In a sheltered
immersion class, the instruction is conducted in English. The
teacher incorporates a student’s native language only when she feels
it would help a student learn the concept/word faster.
In a bilingual class, the instruction is done solely in the
student’s native language. Concepts, information, activities,
questions are also given in Spanish. And the rest of the courses –
math, science, social studies – are conducted in Spanish. That is
very different from using English as the primary mode of instruction.
Also, bilingual proponents believe that a student cannot learn a
new language until he is literate in his own native language. That
is another difference. We believe a student can juggle two languages
simultaneously and that is why we are so emphatic about teaching
students English as soon as they enroll in school. Why delay the
teaching of English?
When you ask bilingual coordinators why their schools’ scores are
so low, they say that if the test had been in Spanish, their students
would have done fine. That means that they are not teaching English,
and so students are not learning English.
I think the camps are still far apart about when we should teach
English. We propose teaching English as soon as possible. They want
to delay it.
Again, we value bilingualism. But that’s not the same as
believing in bilingual education.
The scores of Limited English Proficient (LEP) students on
national tests have been in the range of 15 to 30 percent for 10
years. Yet no legislative reforms were ever discussed. Why now?
As for the Knaperek bill, I don’t trust the monitoring mechanism
for the three-year limit.
You ask whether there is any compromising. This is not about
political compromises. This is about helping students to achieve
I’m not a politician. I’m an educator who works to offer quality
education to all students.
I have more faith in the “English for the Children” initiative
than I do in legislators at this point.
Let’s let the people decide.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. can be reached at (602) 444-4977 or at ruben.navarrette
@pni.com via e-mail.