Opponents of bilingual education in Arizona have filed 165,000 signatures with the secretary of state’s office, about 64,000 more than needed to get their measure on the November ballot to kill bilingual education.
Arizona’s “English for the Children” campaign is modeled after a nearly identical measure passed by California voters in 1998, and it is funded by the same Silicon Valley entrepreneur and occasional political candidate, Ron Unz. However, exit polling showed that California Hispanics voted against the measure nearly 2-1, and political analysts predict similar opposition from Arizona Hispanics.
The Arizona secretary of state’s office is expected to determine within two weeks whether the signatures and petitions meet the requirements for the ballot.
Unz said he hopes that having the bilingual question on the November ballot will force the presidential candidates to treat it as a national issue, even though neither candidate supports the abolition of bilingual education. GOP hopeful George W. Bush attracts more Hispanic support than most Republican candidates, but a poll released recently by Hispanic Trends Inc. shows presumptive Democratic nominee Al Gore with a lead of 22 percent among Hispanic voters.
The Hispanic population is still only 5 percent of the U.S. electorate, but those voters are heavily concentrated, and their numbers are growing in California, Texas, New York and Florida.
Voters in those states provide just over half the electoral votes needed to claim the White House, prompting presidential contenders to focus more on issues of importance to Hispanic voters.
Arizona’s Hispanic leaders are divided over the question. The committees managing the ballot drive and opposing it are both headed by Hispanics. Arizona State University pollster Bruce Merrill said preliminary polling about 18 months ago on the abolition of bilingual education showed voters of nonspecified ethnicity to be evenly split on the issue.
But Merrill predicts the measure is well-positioned for approval by Arizona’s traditional voting majority of conservative, white Republicans, even if the initiative draws a larger than average turnout among the state’s Hispanic voters. Hispanic voters make up about 20 percent of the electorate but turn out only about 6 percent of the vote.
Like the California measure, the Arizona initiative calls for replacing bilingual education — the system in which students not fluent in English are taught in both English and their native tongue — with a year of English-immersion classes. And as in California, opponents claim the English-immersion movement is racially motivated.
“Superficially, the initiative sounds like an innocent attempt to improve education in the state of Arizona,” said Leonard Basurto, director of bilingual education programs for the Tucson Unified School District. “In fact, it’s a mean-spirited new attempt to impose an English-only law on the state of Arizona.”
Unz wrote a guest column in the National Review last month, noting that the bilingual debate of the past 30 years usually boiled down to empty rhetoric, “with the loudest voices on one side often representing none-too-subtle xenophobia and nativism and those on the other side preaching ethnic separatism and Anglophobia.” But he frequently reminds critics who charge English-immersion supporters with racist motives that the Proposition 227 campaign in California started with an activist nun and a group of dissatisfied Hispanic parents.
Political debate is still raging in California over measuring the success or failure of Proposition 227, in part because school districts have interpreted the law variously. And since California has only recently begun requiring public schools to administer Stanford 9 standardized tests to all their students, critics also argue that there is no accurate baseline for measuring improvement.
California educators have made many improvements to public education in the past decade, Basurto argues, that are just now beginning to show results. Students enrolled in English-immersion classes may be showing improvements, he said, but so are all California students.
An analysis of test scores in California by the San Jose Mercury News a year and a half after Proposition 227 passed showed schools that switched to English-only instruction had somewhat bigger gains than schools that used waivers to keep bilingual education.
But the achievement gap narrowed among students in higher grades, and neither bilingual nor English immersion students fared well when compared to all students.
Critics say bilingual education programs typically keep students in specialized classrooms for years, frequently graduating students from high school who are still not capable of communicating well in English. They further argue that federal financial incentives paid to school districts with bilingual programs serve to perpetuate a program that holds non-English-speaking children back.
“Bilingual educators do not claim to make kids 100 percent English proficient over any (specific) period of time,” Basurto said. “It varies from student to student. We’re saying to reclassify a student as English proficient, we want to make sure they can read the English language at grade level.”