PHOENIX—A voter-approved limit on bilingual education will not stop Indian students from being taught their Native American languages, Attorney General Janet Napolitano said Thursday.
The initiative, Proposition 203 on the state’s November ballot, does not apply to tribal or federal schools and federal law restricts its application to state public schools, Napolitano said in a formal opinion.
Federal law includes principles of tribal sovereignty and the federally recognized right of American Indians to express themselves through native languages, Napolitano said.
That means Proposition 203 cannot prohibit a state public school located on a reservation or elsewhere from teaching Native American language and culture, Napolitano said.
“State public schools may offer students classes in Native American languages and culture, whether or not such children are already proficient in English,” Napolitano wrote.
Proposition 203, which replaces traditional bilingual education with intensive one-year English immersion programs, will bar teachers from speaking in Spanish or languages other than English in teaching immigrant children. Teachers or administrators who willfully ignore the prohibition face being held personally liable for fees and damages and banishment from public school positions for five years.
Parents can request exemptions for their children but aren’t guaranteed they will receive them.
Napolitano’s opinion was requested by state Sen. Jack Jackson, D-Window Rock, who asked whether Proposition 203 applied to Native American language programs in schools serving the Navajo Nation.
Napolitano said her reply applied to other federally recognized tribes also.
Jackson said he sought the opinion at the request of Navajo Nation President Kelsey A. Begaye and local school officials who want to preserve instruction in tribal languages and culture.
“Everybody’s happy with it,” Jackson said of the opinion. “Navajo culture is our relationship with our total universe. It’s teaching character – how to be a decent person.”
But to learn about Navajo culture, “you’ve got to speak your language first,” Jackson said.
Arizona tribes had banded together to oppose Proposition 203 and it was defeated in the three northeastern Arizona counties encompassing the Navajo Reservation, which also includes parts of New Mexico and Utah.
Proposition 203 proponents said they never intended to have its limits apply to Native American languages and that because of the tribes’ sovereignty, did not think it did.
Proponents contended that bilingual education, which teaches students with limited English primarily in Spanish, has taught few students sufficient English to excel in school or get decent jobs.