Voters apparently will have the opportunity to decide whether to continue bilingual programs in Arizona’s public schools.

Officials with the “English for the Children” initiative said during a Phoenix press conference Monday they have more than the 101,762 signatures of registered voters needed to get the question on the November ballot and are now collecting more for insurance.

U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon appeared at the press conference to endorse the initiative. Campaign officials said he is the first major political figure to endorse the initiative.

Mr. Salmon called bilingual programs a “boondoggle” that have failed. “Bilingual education has failed in its mission to teach children English,” he said. “It has denied thousands of young Americans the opportunity to fully realize the American dream.”

He said according to Arizona Department of Education data only 5.5 per cent of the students in bilingual programs become proficient in English and noted that the Hispanic dropout rate was nearly double that of non-Hispanics.

“They don’t have the tools for success,” said Mr. Salmon. “If you want to compete in the world today, you must learn English.”

The Arizona initiative is similar to California’s Prop. 227 approved by the voters in 1998. If the Arizona initiative passes, students not fluent in English would be placed in English immersion courses.

Mr. Salmon said he is living proof language immersion courses work.

“I’m bilingual,” he said. “I speak English and Mandarin Chinese.”

He said he was called by his church to serve a mission in Taiwan and his superiors forbid the speaking of English. “I became fluent in about six months,” he said.

Some California educators are reporting similar success.

Ken Noonan, superintendent of the Oceanside school district in California, said during the press conference test scores of the children in immersion classes doubled during the first year.

“They are learning English much more quickly than many of us assumed,” he said. “The first few months are the hardest, but the scores have continued to climb.”

Mr. Noonan said he had opposed Prop. 227 and had been a strong supporter of bilingual programs for more than 30 years. “I had deep roots in the programs,” he said. His attitude toward Prop. 227 has changed dramatically as he has seen the results in his district, he said.

Ron Unz, who ran the campaign for Prop. 227, said a 1996 incident spawned the California initiative. “Parents were boycotting a school in Los Angeles because the school refused to teach English.

“We hope the people of Arizona will end up voting like the people in California,” he said.

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