Bilingual ed must go, Ariz. voters say in poll

English immersion programs favored

Nearly three-quarters of Arizona voters favor dismantling the state’s bilingual education system and replacing it with English immersion programs, according to an Arizona Republic poll.

Proposition 203 will be decided Nov. 7, but if the election were held today, 74 percent of the state’s voters would approve the measure. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, who is financing the Arizona campaign after backing a successful movement to end bilingual education in California two years ago, called the poll results “absolutely remarkable.”

“I can’t believe the numbers on Election Day will be as high as that, but it’s certainly very encouraging,” said Unz, who was in Phoenix on Thursday campaigning for the proposition. “That says that ordinary people, regardless of ideology and ethnicity, believe children should be taught English when they are sent to school.”

Unz said the measure passed by 61 percent in California, and he pointed to gains by immigrant students on recent test scores as proof the movement is working.

Poll respondent Miguel Gonzalez, a sanitation truck driver in the border town of San Luis near Yuma, said he definitely will vote to end bilingual education. He came to Arizona from Mexico with his parents when he was 3, and said the only way to succeed in this country is to learn English and learn it quickly.

“Back in those days there were no bilingual classes; they threw you in the pool and you had to learn to swim,” said Gonzalez, 39. “I’m not against bilingual classes, but you have to learn English first. They are not going to lose their basic language, because they hear it in their home. I learned English and I still speak Spanish.”

State Sen. Joe Eddie Lopez, D-south Phoenix, an opponent of Proposition 203, took issue with the poll’s question, which he said led respondents to believe a viable alternative awaits if they reject bilingual education. The 602 respondents contacted by pollsters were asked, “Do you favor or oppose the requirement that all public school instruction be conducted in English and that an intensive one-year English immersion program be established to teach English as quickly as possible to students for which English is not their first language?”

Said Lopez: “The issue gets lost when we suggest there is a program out there that is more effective than bilingual education, and that is what is making people respond like that. When I explain to people that bilingual education outperforms immersion programs in Arizona, they change their minds about that.”

Unz and the fight against bilingual education gained a new ally Thursday in Rep. Laura Knaperek, R-Tempe. Knaperek has tried unsuccessfully in the Legislature to limit the number of years bilingual education is provided, but threw in her support after hearing about California’s test results.

“I usually don’t support initiatives because I feel like that’s something that should come out of the Legislature. Unfortunately you’ll see this issue is too political to really make some reform that’s needed,” Knaperek said during a news conference at the Capitol on Thursday. “Arizona’s dropout rate is 11 percent and they are mostly minority children. We want children to be successful, and English is the language of success.”

A small group of supporters held signs at the news conference that said, “English for the Children,” while other signs said the same thing in Spanish, “Ingl?s para los Ni?os.” The Spanish signs show the proposition isn’t against the Spanish language, said Margaret Garcia Dugan, principal of a high school in Glendale. Rather, she said, it’s in favor of English immersion.

Lopez said he was surprised to learn of Knaperek’s support of the initiative because she had favored local school district control in the past. Knaperek denies this.

“Now she’s changing her mind completely, evidently when it comes to minority kids, Laura changes her mind as far as local control is concerned,” Lopez said.

Proposition 203 is favored most strongly by Republicans at 82 percent, according to the poll, but it resonated strongly among Democrats, as well, at 63 percent. There was a sharp divide in the way voters in Maricopa County (79 percent in favor) felt about the issue compared with those in Pima County (59 percent in favor.)

For poll respondent Deborah Fitchie of Phoenix, the issue is simple. She believes in being bilingual, and has spent years learning and using Spanish.

But mandatory bilingual education has got to go, she said.

“In order for students to get the best education they can get, they need to learn English as soon as possible,” said Fitchie, who owns a construction business with her husband.

Fitchie said about 30 percent of her workers are Hispanic, and those who don’t learn English simply cannot be promoted.

“When you do commercial construction there are plans you must be able to read and they are not in Spanish,” she said. “It really hinders people when they are not able to speak English.”

The poll was conducted Sept. 14 through Monday by the Analytical Group, for The Arizona Republic. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

Reach the reporter at [email protected] or (602) 444-8146.

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