A fiery debate over the value of bilingual education has swept from California to Arizona. On Wednesday, it ignited in Phoenix.

On one side are those who think all American school kids should learn in English – that giving non-English-speaking children the option of learning in another language just makes it harder for them to keep up later on.

“What hurts kids is herding them away from everyone else to bilingual education,” says Hector Ayala, a Tucson high school teacher and co-founder of English for the Children – Arizona.

“Throwing a child into a class where they only speak English does kids no harm, it only does them good.”

On the other side are those who believe non-English speaking children learn best if they take classes first in their native language, and pick up English gradually. Ideally, the process allows children to become literate in their first language and also fluent in English.

“We are talking about brains, not car radiators,” says Josue Gonzalez, director of Arizona State University’s Center for Bilingual Education and Research.

“You don’t have to empty out one language and fill it up with another.

Late Wednesday afternoon, state Sen. Joe Eddie Lopez, a Phoenix Democrat and bilingual education advocate, introduced the first bill of the 1999 legislative session.

It would, among other things, make schools accountable to parents and state officials for kids’ success or failure in bilingual education, pay bilingual teachers an additional $2,000 a year, allow parents to remove kids from bilingual programs that aren’t working and award special bilingual diplomas to kids who can prove they know two languages when they graduate.

But hours before advocates for bilingual education packed a Senate hearing room to voice support, staffers from the offices of Gov. Jane Hull and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan had already predicted the bill’s failure.

“We don’t support any of it,” said Jaime Molera, Hull’s education adviser.

For one thing, the bill calls for a repeal of the new Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS, high school graduation test.

For another, it places no limits on the amount of time a child could spend in bilingual education, something Hull and Keegan would like to see.

“We feel very strongly about establishing a time limit on bilingual education,” said John Schilling, chief of policy and planning for the Arizona Department of Education.

“We do not feel it is appropriate to put a child in bilingual education and have them languish there for years.”

Nevertheless, bilingual education proponents from as far away as Globe filled a Senate hearing room to cheer Lopez. The testimony was emotional – at times to the point of tears.

“I’m 48 and I still have this thing inside me,” said Cashion resident Pearl Allen, choking back sobs.

“I’m Hispanic and I come from the generation that was punished for speaking our language. I got D’s in Spanish when I took it in college because of this experience. I was an adult before I could (comfortably) speak Spanish – I learned it from my children.”

A Phoenix mother, Peggy Bunting, said her background is Irish-Catholic but she wants her kids to be multilingual and multicultural.

“That’s what employers are going to be looking for in the future,” she said.

But a recent poll by the Behavioral Research Center found 69.7 percent of respondents favor a voter initiative such as California’s Proposition 227, which in June banned bilingual education and mandated that all students be taught in English classrooms.

It’s difficult to tell what the average Arizona parent thinks about bilingual education. Most base their views on the experiences of their own children.

“I never had the opportunity to learn English when I was younger and now I am just beginning as an adult,” said bilingual education proponent Maria Orozco, who was born in Sonora, Mexico, and speaks virtually no English.

“I want my son in bilingual education to preserve the Spanish he knows.”

Orozco volunteers about 30 hours a week in her son’s first-grade classroom at Tertulia charter school, in south Phoenix.

Five days a week from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., Orozco sits in the tiny chairs in the bilingual classroom of her son, Augustin. She helps Spanish-speaking youngsters learn to read and spell words in their first language.

But in Glendale, Dominique Chavez wouldn’t mind if bilingual education disappeared entirely.

She says her 10-year-old daughter, Sarena, reads and does math at a third-grade level because she was mistaken for a Spanish speaking child and put in bilingual ed.

“The result? Two years lost of traditional education,” she said.

It’s also difficult to tell how many Arizona children are floundering in bilingual education.

One Department of Education study suggests that fewer than 3 percent of students in Arizona English-as-a-second-language classes do well enough to eventually enter mainstream classes.

But critics, including ASU’s Gonzalez, say that study was flawed because it included kindergartners, kids in classes with unqualified teachers and kids whose schools lack programs all together.

Gonzalez said the problem for many non-English-speaking children is not bilingual education itself but a lack of qualified teachers.

“And this is not just a problem in Arizona, it’s a problem all over the country,” he said.

About 94,000 of Arizona’s 750,000 public school students are classified as limited English proficient.

But Ayala, of English for the Children, said he is unconcerned about statistics. He said his opposition to bilingual education comes from real life – students in his Cholla High School English classes who read and write at an elementary school level.

In January, his group, which is funded by the same organization that launched the California anti-bilingual education initiative, plans to launch a similar drive in Arizona.

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