Bilingual education debated in Arizona

Ballot initiative would prohibit schools from teaching kids in their native tongues

Si or no.

That’s the question Arizona voters will answer when they go to the polls Nov. 7 and face an initiative on the future of bilingual education.

Proposition 203 is intended to force students to acquire English skills by immersing them in the language among native English speakers. If it succeeds, all forms of bilingual education will be barred from classrooms throughout the state, effective in fall 2001.

“Bilingual education has forgotten its focus and mission, which is to teach English to minority children,” said Hector Ayala, a veteran high school English teacher in Tucson and one of the organizers of English for the Children of Arizona, the group that collected the approximately 164,000 signatures to place the question on the ballot.

“Our initiative isn’t to make English the only language on campus, we just seek to change the language of instruction in the classroom,” Mr. Ayala said.

The measure would affect more than 100,000 students who participate in some form of bilingual program. For a state with one of the fastest-growing Hispanic populations in the nation and large American Indian communities, the initiative could have far-reaching effects in teaching methods.

Bilingual-education proponents are concerned about the possibility of losing non-English instruction – also known as limited English proficient programs and English as a second language.

“I have four new students now from Mexico, and one of them is having a very hard time,” said Ana Hawley, a first-grade bilingual-education teacher for 22 years in Guadalupe, near Phoenix.

“If this thing passes, I don’t think he’ll be ready. If I’m not allowed to help him in his own language, he’ll fail.”

The debate over how best to educate children who do not have a command of the English language has raged for years.

In 1998, California voters adopted Proposition 227, a ballot initiative eliminating bilingual education programs and mandating “English immersion” programs. Colorado voters are expected to face the same issue in 2002.

While Texas educators also have been analyzing the pros and cons of bilingual education, most so far seem to prefer bilingual programs for helping students overcome language barriers.

Meanwhile, bilingual-education opponents point to recent California test scores as proof that immersion works. Students limited in English have shown marked improvement in standardized tests since Proposition 227 was implemented.

But those who favor bilingual education argue that the improved scores do not take into account other measures that had been implemented, such as reduced class sizes.

As in California, bilingual educators in Arizona warn that immigrant children will suffer most. They caution against throwing them into an English-only environment where they risk falling behind their peers and having their self-esteem damaged, which could propel them to drop out of school.

“We should exercise extreme caution,” said Mary Carol Combs, a research scientist at the University of Arizona who has researched a program that ran from 1919 to 1967 that required minority children in Tucson and surrounding towns to enter an English immersion program before starting first grade.

The defunct program, Ms. Combs said, is virtually identical to what Proposition 203 would implement. She said the old program created an oppressive environment for children and established a segregated system of education.

Of the 30 former students and teachers interviewed as part of the research project, “there’s not a single person who has a positive memory,” Ms. Combs said.

“Proposition 203 is not only an example of unsound education policy but also removes the right of parents to choose,” she said. “If parents want bilingual education for their children, they should have it.”

Although state education officials have not taken a position on the measure, they have said children should not stay in specialized programs for more than three years.

“We still think the Legislature should have taken on the issue in the session as opposed to taking it to the ballot and having people vote on it,” said Patty Likens, a spokeswoman for Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction.

“The goal should always be to get the students fluent in English and be successful. Should the initiative pass, we will move forward to make sure the goal remains the same.”

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