Arizona educators and politicians doubt voters will scrap bilingual education, as Californians did Tuesday.
But it wouldn’t be the first time Arizona has followed its western neighbor’s political lead.
“We’ve had small efforts in the Legislature already to limit bilingual education, and clearly it’s a trend that is going on around the country,” said Sen. Joe Eddie Lopez, D-Phoenix.
In the spring, the state House of Representatives passed a bill to limit the time students can spend in bilingual education or English as a Second Language classes, but it died in the Senate.
Leonard Basurto, bilingual education director for Tucson Unified School District, noted that Arizona voters narrowly passed a law making English the state’s official language. He said a bilingual education proposition could garner the same support as the English- only law, which has been tied up in the courts for a decade.
“There would be some support. I would expect it to be a lot lower than in California,” Basurto said.
California’s anti-bilingual education initiative, which 61 percent of voters there approved, allows limited-English students one year of English immersion classes, and then forces them into all English courses. Court challenges to the law were filed yesterday.
Arizona law requires that schools provide limited-English students with bilingual education programs, English as a Second Language classes or individual plans until they pass a series of tests. Studies show that children take five to seven years to master a second language.
Organized opposition to bilingual education is virtually non- existent in Arizona, marked only by sporadic complaints to lawmakers or school boards.
TUSD is known as the “cradle of bilingual education” because it started one of the first organized programs in the nation three decades ago.
“The climate is very pro-bilingual education,” Basurto said.
Tucson bilingual educators have formed groups to promote the program, which uses the students’ native language to instruct course content and English. English as a Second Language courses, on the other hand, are conducted entirely in English.
A TUSD report last year found that students with limited English proficiency performed worse than the district average on language and math tests, even when the students were tested in their native language. Not all limited-English students were in bilingual education or English as a Second Language classes, however.
Limited-English students who had progressed out of those courses did better than the district average on most of the tests.
Most members of the Hispanic Professional Action Committee support bilingual education, said Ernesto Portillo, the committee’s president.
“We see it as an asset and something we should take advantage of, educationally speaking,” Portillo said.
Hispanics in California voted for the anti-bilingual education initiative in higher percentages than the rest of the electorate.
One local Hispanic against bilingual education is Maria Mendoza, the representative for Hispanic plaintiffs in the TUSD class-action desegregation suit settled in 1978.
She said she is thrilled with the passage of the California proposition, and is organizing parents and other opponents to fight the “racist” program.
“You have to immerse the child in English,” said Mendoza, a native Spanish speaker who learned English by immersion. “By the third grade, the child should be reading and writing English first.”
A few Arizona Republican leaders have hinted support of bilingualism, Portillo said.
U.S. Sen. John McCain introduced the “English-Plus” resolution that encourages residents to learn English, but recognizes the importance of speaking other languages.
Republican Gov. Jane Hull, who used to teach on the Navajo Reservation, said the decision about bilingual education should be up to individual parents and teachers, said Jaime Molera, Hull’s executive assistant for education.
Rep. Laura Knaperek, R-Tempe, said her bill placing limits on bilingual education was unrelated to the California initiative but instead was intended to address parents’ problems.
She plans to evaluate programs effectiveness and develop another bill that will also put a time limit on language services.
“If you don’t limit something, there’s usually not a lot of accountability,” Knaperek said. “If you’re going to give money for programs, they need to be accountable.”
Lopez, who voted against the bill, said he has heard from some Hispanic parents who worry that bilingual education may be hurting their children’s academic performance.
“Unfortunately, the parents, most of them, do not know who or what to blame,” Lopez said. “Clearly, they have seen results that are less than expected out of bilingual education programs, and perhaps they feel that ‘swim or drown’ might help them.”
Local bilingual educators said California’s program will only hurt children.
“It has a lot more to do with politics than it does about pedagogy,” said Jean Favela, bilingual education director for Sunnyside Unified School District.
Maria Patterson, principal at TUSD’s Wakefield Middle School, said she knows from experience that it takes seven years to become comfortable in a second language.