Bilingual ed's friends and foes make points at same time, place

PHOENIX – Bilingual education friends and foes duked it out at dueling weekend conferences on whether English is being taught in the classroom and on whether parental choice is allowed.

Arizona bilingual advocates quickly organized a conference on the same day and at the same hotel as one sponsored by the Center for Equal Opportunity – a national non-profit organization that opposes bilingual education.

The Center came out on the side of English for the Children Arizona, the state group that is attempting to abolish bilingual education through a ballot proposition similar to one passed in California last year.

The group needs to collect 112,000 signatures for a November 2000 initiative.

The new Arizona Language Education Council used its Saturday conference to kick off a yearlong effort to combat the initiative, said Dan Wegener, the council’s public relations coordinator.

“We need more quality bilingual education programs in Arizona, not less,” said Julian Sodari, a member of the Phoenix Elementary School District governing board.

Linda Chavez, a nationally known opponent of bilingual education who heads the Center for Equal Opportunity, said the center intends to become more active in Arizona, although it cannot be politically active.

She personally backs the initiative, although she originally opposed the one in California.

Chavez favors intensive English immersion. She says bilingual education delays students’ learning English by overwhelmingly teaching limited-English students in their native language. She calls it a “Spanish-language maintenance program.”

Bilingual supporters, however, say that long-term bilingual education – that uses mostly native language at first and gradually transitions into more English – is the best way to teach English.

Joseph Farley, associate superintendent of Oceanside Unified School District near San Diego, said he is a “recovering bilingual education educator” now that he has seen the effectiveness of English immersion in his district. Test scores went up for limited-English students this year, but critics say students throughout California made equal gains.

Even though an anti-bilingual education group sponsored the main conference, at least half of its attendees were bilingual-education supporters, who forwarded most of the questions to panelists.

Much of the debate was about parental choice.

Though Arizona law has long permitted parents to remove their children from bilingual programs, bilingual education foes say that some schools refuse to let them out and also place English-speaking students in those programs.

Starting this school year, a new Arizona law has strengthened parents’ rights. Before, schools were required to merely notify parents of the students’ placements, but the law now allows parents to sign off on that decision.

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said he is pushing for federal legislation to extend the same parental choice nationwide. He declined to take a side on the initiative but said bilingual education is “not the best choice.”

The legislation will go before the House Education Committee this week, said Glenn Hamer, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon, a Phoenix-area Republican who is sponsoring the bill.

Bilingual education advocates criticized the ballot initiative as restricting parental choice. While California’s proposition allows parents to request waivers to enroll in bilingual education, Arizona’s initiative is more restrictive.

However, if 20 students in a school request a program, they can get it, said Hector Ayala, co-chairman of English for the Children Arizona.

The opposing sides could be distinguished by buttons in shades of green. Teal ones read “Bilingual is Beautiful.” Kelly-green pins said “English for the Children.”

Ayala, a teacher at Cholla High Magnet School, said he thinks he should wear both pins, as he is for bilingualism, too.

Earlier, Chavez emphasized that she is pro-bilingual but said bilingual education is failing to teach English. She said the native language should be learned at home.

Bilingual education opponents, however, believe the other side is trying to eliminate the native language. “This is an issue of cultural genocide,” said state Rep. Carlos Avelar, D-Phoenix.

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