A Fight Over Waivers

English-only backers ready to sue

Some Arizona school districts make it too easy for students to stay in bilingual classes, against the voters’ wishes, said an English-only activist readying to take his complaint to court.

Ron Unz, the California businessman who spearheaded the Proposition 203 win here and similar efforts in other states, said last week that supporters are searching for plaintiffs in Tucson and in the Glendale Elementary School District in Maricopa County.

Norma Alvarez, an English-only activist in Glendale, said last week that a couple there will meet soon with an attorney for Unz.

She said the parents had difficulty pulling their children from a bilingual class there.

Alvarez declined to identify the parents until after they meet with the lawyer.

Repeated calls Friday to the Glendale district were not returned.

Here, Unz said, school districts including Tucson Unified and Sunnyside are ignoring the mandate of Arizona voters last year to dump most bilingual-education programs.

“Districts are taking students who don’t know English and falsely classifying them as having a ‘good knowledge of English,'” Unz responded to a reporter’s e-mail query.

“These districts are committing outrageous educational fraud, and will be held accountable,” he wrote.

Unz is not one for idle threats. He helped pass a voter referendum in California that altered its bilingual education before he set his sights on Arizona.

Currently, his English For the Children campaign has collected more than 100,000 signatures to put an anti-bilingual-education effort on the ballot in Massachusetts and will soon launch a separate drive for voter signatures in Colorado.

Unz said TUSD and Sunnyside are giving too many waivers, often placing children still struggling to learn English in bilingual classes.

In TUSD, 3,230 students have received bilingual education waivers, compared with 1,834 students at Sunnyside. That’s about a third of the number of bilingual-education students the two districts had prior to passage of Proposition 203.

Jean Favela, director of bilingual education at Sunnyside, said that all 5,890 students classified as English-learners would get waivers if the district wanted to circumvent the law.

She said about 30 percent of the elementary pupils who received waivers speak mostly English.

“We’re not looking for fluency when they enter the program, we’re looking for a working knowledge of English,” Favela said. “Lots of kids don’t qualify.”

Favela said she is unconcerned by the threat of a lawsuit because the district spent months preparing for the new law and its procedures have been scrutinized repeatedly.

“We had legal counsel review all of our procedures,” she said. “We didn’t just pull them out of a hat.”

Similarly, Becky Monta?o, assistant superintendent at TUSD, said attorneys, parents, teachers and administrators spent months developing the waiver procedure the district uses.

“The process is very rigorous,” Monta?o said.

For example, she said only 10 students in the entire district have received a Type 3 waiver, which is available to students with “special individual needs” who are unable to cope after 30 days of English-immersion.

“I think we have been very diligent and deliberate to make sure we’re in compliance with the law,” she said.

Maria Mendoza, an English-only activist here, said TUSD still has too many students granted waivers.

She said the flu and a death in the family have prevented her from pursuing a plaintiff here, but that she will begin the effort soon.

“We have to look at those 3,200 students to see how they got a waiver,” Mendoza said.

“You can’t tell me a non-English-speaking first- or second-grader knows enough English to get a waiver.”

* Contact Hipolito R. Corella at 573-4191 or at [email protected]

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