Bilingual ed foes target Arizona for next fight

Arizona is the next target of California businessman Ron Unz’s effort to dismantle bilingual education nationwide.

Unz recently met with a Tucson grass-roots group and has since promised to provide “very significant help,” including financial backing and legal counsel.

He said his group is essentially prepared to help put Arizona’s campaign together.

“In many ways, Arizona is a very reasonable next step for the effort to move against bilingual education across the country,” Unz said in a telephone interview yesterday.

Cholla High Magnet School English teacher Hector Ayala, who is with the Tucson group English for the Children – Arizona, said he welcomes Unz’s pledge to help.

“We’re new at this. We really have no idea what a thing like this (involves),” Ayala said.

Unz, who spearheaded the controversial Proposition 227 to curb bilingual education in California, said he is impressed with the local group’s grass-roots effort against bilingual education.

Unz said Arizona is a logical next step because it has a large number of students in bilingual education programs, it has a ballot measure process and it’s close to California.

“From everything I am reading about bilingual education, it’s even worse in Arizona,” Unz said, referring to an Arizona Department of Education report that showed a 2.8 percent exit rate from bilingual programs statewide.

He said California has a 5 percent exit rate.

“Exit rate” refers to the proportion of students who eventually leave the bilingual program with competency in English and enter mainstream classes.

Unz said voters in Arizona will feel the same way as voters in California and support a measure to eliminate bilingual programs.

California voters approved Proposition 227 in June.

The California campaign cost about $1.2 million, which included getting at least 500,000 signatures, Unz said.

It will be less expensive in Arizona, he said, because only about 120,000 valid signatures are needed.

“In the next week or so we certainly will start looking at all the (legalities),” Unz said.

“Obviously we’ve spent over a year going over the legal aspects and policy in California, so we can certainly provide the value of our experience and help them (the local group) out directly in their efforts,” Unz said.

Unz said his group also has been contacted by parents and teachers in other states, such as Washington, Colorado and Texas.

But the Tucson group seems the most organized to carry out a statewide effort, he said.

“I’ve been extremely impressed with everything they are doing, and we will (likely) help them for about a year” to get an initiative on the ballot, Unz added.

Ayala said his group has been meeting for about five weeks and has about 25 members. It has supporters in Nogales and Phoenix, he said.

Maria Escalante Mendoza, also with the local group, said she contacted Unz shortly after the California initiative was approved.

Mendoza said the group already has begun a door-to-door campaign recruiting parents in Southwest Side neighborhoods.

She opposes bilingual education programs because they “are a conspiracy to keep Hispanic children at a low level.”

“We want our children to read and write the English language so they can break the cycle,” Mendoza said.

“We don’t want our children to be in the same boat we are in,” she added. “The bottom line is, they have to learn English in the first grade.”

She supports total English immersion, where students of all levels are taught in English.

Mendoza defends the “sink or swim” system, saying young children can pick up any language.

“They are like sponges,” she said.

The 61-year-old Mendoza said that was expected when she was in school.

“Our teachers were Anglos, and they didn’t know any Spanish,” she said. “It was expected for us to learn it. There is no doubt in my mind that we are going to be successful (in dismantling bilingual education in Arizona),” Mendoza added.

“Parents are against it. They feel trapped because they feel that they have no choice.”

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