Arizona has begun a debate on the future of bilingual education in
this state, which has 112,000 limited-English-speaking students.
English for the Children, a group of Latino parents and educators
from Tucson and Glendale, has filed an initiative for the 2000
election requiring that all students be placed in English-language
classrooms. The initiative, modeled upon one passed by California
voters last year, would allow children to remain in bilingual classes
only if their parents requested a waiver.
In the second installment of a dialogue on bilingual education,
Republic columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr., a former doctoral student in
education and substitute teacher, and Mike Martinez, superintendent
of the Globe School District, discuss the issue.
RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.: Mike, the debate is about whether bilingual
education should be improved, better-funded, reformed, eliminated or
just left alone.
One reform is increasing parental control so that parents have
more of a say as to whether their children receive bilingual
instruction. That apparently isn’t happening now, no matter what
district officials claim.
Theories of bilingual education don’t mean much. What matters is
practice and how theories are implemented in the “real world” of
As a school superintendent, you work in that world. Do you
support the English for the Children initiative? If not, do you
think the status quo is working and just needs, as some suggest, more
funding and more attention? What about children who seem to be
languishing on bilingual tracks for up to nine years and appear to
not be learning English well enough?
School administrators are tight-lipped on hot issues, but, really,
how well is the system working?
MIKE MARTINEZ: It’s unfortunate that the discussion about
bilingual education has reached such a heated stage, with the threat
of an initiative – which I don’t support – hovering above. These
discussions are four or five years late. Many of us can tell you
that the truth is, the present system is faltering and plagued with
many serious problems.
First and foremost is the severe shortage of certificated
personnel to drive these programs. An analysis of the effectiveness
of a program without that acknowledgement is folly and something
never included in reports issued by the Arizona Department of
Secondly, there is the nearly absolute absence of monitoring. We
are subject to a systematic auditing process with respect to
everything else, and yet bilingual and English as a Second Language
(ESL) programs are unmonitored and unaccountable except for the
requisite responsibility to do so from within. It is that internal
negligence that’s to blame for some of the horror stories.
Our problems rest more with how well the laws have been
implemented, how the programs have (or have not) been staffed, and
how well the programs have been monitored – not with whether
bilingual education is effective.
A quality program supported by fair and appropriate resources, and
delivered by a certified, qualified teacher, yields results.
I cannot support the English for the Children initiative for many
reasons; the divisiveness that would result is reason alone.
However, reform of what we now have is certainly overdue.
NAVARRETTE: The debate isn’t just heated but polarized. Those who
want to end bilingual education are feuding with those who want to
keep it in its current form. There’s no in-between.
But you’re not in either camp. You don’t support the initiative,
and yet you admit that the current system is “faltering and plagued
with many serious problems” – a concession that many true believers
aren’t gutsy enough to make.
But you’re not off the hook. One reason that the discussion
didn’t happen earlier is that people like you, who knew all along
that the system was broken, kept quiet. You didn’t challenge the
true believers, didn’t fix the problems yourselves or police the
Nor did many call upon the state to increase monitoring of
bilingual programs. Instead, the bilingual education establishment,
school administrators and lobbies like the Arizona Association of
Bilingual Education have long told the state to keep its nose out of
bilingual education and allow for district “local control.” They
demanded district autonomy, less rules and regulation, and, of
course, more money.
Now, the state, under Superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan, has
finally begun to evaluate these programs, and officials are coming up
with bad news about low English-transition rates and student
Just a few weeks ago, the Education Department found, for the
second year in a row, that despite $361 million in federal and state
bilingual funding, less than 4 percent of Limited English Proficient
students in 1997-98 had learned enough English to transfer into
Faced with these pitiful results, those same pro-bilingual
interests are suddenly dancing in the opposite direction, squealing
about how there should have been more state control. The
contradiction makes your head spin.
There has been, we both know, a deplorable mismanagement of
bilingual programs by school officials. That’s due in part to the
fact that they treat bilingual programs as little more than an
afterthought. And – let’s be blunt – that’s because these programs
primarily serve Latino students, whom those officials expect little
from in the first place and whose parents don’t apply the sort of
political pressure that superintendents and school boards respond to.
So, we have an ugly and indeed racist system now in place in which
a whole category of students are being exploited because of their
race. That’s not new. What is new is that those doing harm aren’t
called racists. They’re called liberals and they support bilingual
Lastly, you say that you won’t support the initiative to end
bilingual education, in part because of its divisiveness. Well,
there was another social movement not long ago that was divisive and
generated hurt feelings. But it was necessary to free people who had
been neglected, exploited and abused.
It was called the civil-rights movement. Welcome to its latest
MARTINEZ: Latest manifestation? I would contend that the movement
has never ended. We have come but a few steps up a very steep
Sadly perhaps, you may be right that divisiveness and hurt
feelings are precisely what will be needed to chart the course. My
concern rests with the non-educational and, yes, racist overtones
that will result in a political decision leaving nothing meaningful
for the children who need us the most. How elimination of the laws
will result in a better educational process when the present laws are
not enforced escapes me. There is no conclusive research on the
effectiveness of immersion programs.
What is conclusive is that educating non-English-speaking
immigrants has always been a matter of heated debate. One has only
to review our contentious history, such as events in San Francisco in
1873. The election of an anti-immigrant school board majority led to
the abolition of schools where French and German had been the primary
language of instruction and all French- and German-speaking teachers
were fired. Or events in New York during the 1920s, where the poor
academic achievement of Italian immigrant children brought about the
pejorative term “retardation.”
The issues have not changed, only the ethnic identities. I find
little encouragement that the answers rest with the political
There is some validity in your assertion that “we” did not scream
loudly enough about the problems. However, those problems are as
diverse and as complex as the individuals involved. To expect one to
“police” others without having the authority or access to data is
During the mid-1980s, many of us voiced our concerns at the
scarcity of qualified personnel to implement the bilingual education
When I arrived here in 1994, the bilingual program at the Globe
District existed only on paper. There were no assessments, no parent
consent forms and no certificated teaching staff. Yet, our reported
Limited English Proficient (LEP) numbers were close to 300 students.
I called the Department of Education to inform them of our non-
compliance status and request that they hold off on an audit and
allow me the opportunity to make corrections. I was told not to
worry, that although it was their suspicion that we, and many other
districts, were not in compliance, the support personnel to conduct
audits were not there. Also not there, it was confided to me, was
the support at higher levels to force compliance.
No doubt, some school districts have to change, and effective
programs should be models for all. The “roundup” mentality to
identifying LEP children must go. And the fact that not all children
are reaching optimal levels should occupy our time and effort until
that is achieved.
Ponder this however: Our statutory requirements on bilingual and
ESL programs are but a decade and a half old. When one considers
that the programs are possibly either understaffed, poorly managed,
ignored, underfunded, unfunded at the local level and/or riddled with
inconsistent instructional delivery methods, one could conclude that
the majority of what we have now are really immersion programs.
So, it could be that the recent report on the programs’
ineffectiveness is really a report on . . . well, you get what I
mean, don’t you?
NAVARRETTE: Yes, I do. You’re saying the state’s figures – while
appearing to be critical of “bilingual” programs – are really
critical of a reality in Arizona schools that is closer to English
I disagree. Rather I’m convinced that what we have in many of the
state’s school districts is neither pure “bilingual education” as set
out in theory, nor the old English immersion model, but a strange
hybrid of both. Because of the enormous pass-the-buck autonomy given
to school districts by the state, that thing called “bilingual
education” varies from district to district and even from classroom
to classroom. That’s part of the problem.
You say that there’s no research on the effectiveness of immersion
programs. Why do you suppose that is? You can find two sides of any
public policy issue, but not this one.
The “data” – compiled over 25 years by researchers from Jim
Cummins to James Crawford to Stephen Krashen to Virginia Collier – is
lopsidedly in support of bilingual programs. Supporters of the
status quo never ask how it could be that all that “analysis” hasn’t
yielded even one critical study. They should smell a rat.
They might flip these studies to the “acknowledgements” page and
see who funds them. They’ll find that these “objective” critiques
were almost always paid for by grants from the bilingual education
office of the U.S. Department of Education or by pro-bilingual
organizations. They got their money’s worth.
Also, the research came along well after 1968 – when Congress
passed the Bilingual Education Act. Despite the romantic lore that
the research produced the law, it was the other way around. The
research was launched to justify a government program that already
But an exhaustive analysis of 72 studies by professor Christine
Rossell of the University of Massachusetts found that only a handful
of them hold water by employing scientific methods and being
longitudinal in nature (assessing results over a long period of
time). Of those studies that did make the cut, Rossell says, none of
them proves that bilingual programs are any better than immersion
programs at reaching the goal of English acquisition.
Now, if the new goal is to maintain a student’s native language,
then that’s something else.
You blame the state for not forcing districts to do a better job.
But you forget two things: the bilingual education establishment
demanded autonomy and told the state to mind its own business and
keep the money coming; and now that Superintendent Keegan has come
forward with reports, she’s been blasted for it.
No wonder Keegan’s predecessors avoided the issue. If you really
want the Education Department to keep monitoring, then you and others
have to get off the sidelines and support her. You can’t let her
swing in the wind.
You doubt the effectiveness of political solutions to existing
problems, but what’s left? These are publicly funded programs.
Shouldn’t the people of Arizona, who are paying for these programs,
have a say in whether they continue to fund them, especially when
many of them are failing?
And what about the Latino parents who can’t get their kids out of
these linguistic prisons? What recourse do they have, if not through
the political arena? They haven’t been able to count on you and
others to come to their aid, so why shouldn’t they have a say at the
And why not give parents who want to leave their kids in bilingual
programs the right to leave them in and those who want to pull them
out the right to do that too? That’s what the proposed ballot
initiative would do.
And don’t tell me about how the law already requires that. We
both know that districts are ignoring that statute along with
parents’ wishes. Why not support giving the law teeth so as to
restore public confidence in whatever bilingual programs may be
MARTINEZ: As I stated earlier, a reworking of the current laws is
not opposed by this administrator. A program which has qualified
personnel, which is accountable, which has an ironclad parent-consent
component and which is part of a mandated reporting process would
clearly improve the current statute – especially if the program of
instruction is individualized and self-paced.
However, let’s not understate or ignore the first consideration:
personnel. For many districts, it is no longer a problem but a
The mixed-bag results with the research is frustrating yet
probably expected, given the tumultuous background that has
accompanied it. We may have to endure many more research attempts
and include even those hybridized or mutant forms before
longitudinal- based answers are determined. Sadly, politics may not
allow that luxury, given our checkered history on the subject.
I might also add here that the Rossell studies have problems as
well, particularly the Berkeley Unified District test-score
comparisons, in that, once again, the details on what bilingual
education actually and functionally was are missing.
As inconclusive as the research may be – for reasons you have
offered and others – I am certain that, limping or not, the data
reveal little in the way of a political crisis and not enough of one
to prop up a forum for all of the hangers-on to push their non-
If amending the laws to, as you say, give it real teeth is
necessary, then so be it. Although the public has the right to
exercise the political process, I do not see the need here. The need
that I do see is to place the appropriate individuals at the table to
fix the components that need repair – with this issue and with all
those in the public education system.
We agree, though: The sidelines are no place for those who know
the truths or seek them. I don’t believe I’m alone in the
willingness to work toward meaningful change.
One thing is true with or without initiatives: Public schools need
to do whatever it takes to make all children successful learners.
The melting pot that is America is not now, nor has it ever been, in
critical condition because it taught some of its children in whatever
language or fashion it took to assimilate them.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. can be reached at 444-4977 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
via e-mail. Mike Martinez can be reached at (520) 425-8905 or at martinez
@mail.globe.k12.az.us via e-mail.