A battle is brewing over the future of bilingual education in Arizona.

On one side are opponents of bilingual education, many of them Hispanics who believe Arizona’s 30-year-old system is a sham that inhibits immigrant children from learning English and places them on the road to educational and economic failure.

“English is the language of opportunity,” said Hector Ayala, a Tucson English teacher born in Mexico who is co-chairman of a campaign to abolish bilingual education in the state.

On the other side are supporters who concede that bilingual education may have some faults but maintain that educating immigrant children in two languages is the best way to teach them to speak English without sacrificing their native language. Bilingual education also best prepares them for the global marketplace, supporters say.

On Tuesday, opponents submitted petitions bearing 165,000 signatures to the secretary of state supporting a Nov. 7 ballot initiative to scrap bilingual education in Arizona and replace it with a one-year English immersion program for non-English speaking students. Proponents need 101,000 valid signatures of registered voters.

About 50 educators, parents and children, most of them Hispanic, went to the state Capitol to show their support for the anti-bilingual education ballot initiative. They carried bilingual signs that said, “English for the children,” in Spanish and English.

The campaign is being financed by millionaire Ron Unz of California, who after orchestrating the dismantling of bilingual education in his home state in 1998, has shifted his focus to Arizona and elsewhere. Unz has said he would like to organize an anti-bilingual education effort in New York City.

On Tuesday, Unz said he has contributed $100,000 to the anti-bilingual education campaign in Arizona. In California, he said, test scores improved “dramatically” after bilingual education was scrapped.

But John Petrovic, a researcher at Arizona State University’s Center for Bilingual Education and Research, said the assertion that English immersion works better than bilingual education is “a lie.”

Research indicates that students with limited English skills attending bilingual-education programs consistently outperform their peers in English immersion programs, Petrovic said.

What’s more, Petrovic said, the majority of immigrant children in Arizona already are placed in English immersion programs, not bilingual education.

State Sen. Joe Eddie Lopez, D-Phoenix, a bilingual-education supporter, said opponents have wrongly blamed bilingual education for the high drop-out rate among Hispanics.

“If you are going to lay blame, you should lay blame on English immersion because only between 5 and 7 percent (of limited English-speaking children) are actually in bilingual education,” Lopez said.

Lopez further characterized the anti-bilingual education campaign as a xenophobic movement that seeks to capitalize on the fears and anxieties about Hispanics trying to succeed in the United States.

“I think it is an extension of an English-only movement by Anglos somehow afraid that Americans are going to lose part of their culture,” Lopez said.

But Ayala, an English teacher at Cholla High School in Tucson, said Hispanic parents are fed up with bilingual education.

“The most common complaint that we heard from the parents was that bilingual teachers promised them that their kids would learn to speak Spanish and English perfectly,” Ayala said. “The reality was that their kids were dropping out in the ninth and tenth grade of high school because they weren’t learning English.”

Ayala said he is proof that English immersion is better for immigrant children. When he was 9, his family moved to Arizona from Nogales, Sonora. He never lost his ability to speak Spanish, despite attending English-only classes.

Retaining his native language, Ayala said, “was my folks’ responsibility, not American schools.”

Ayala acknowledged that bilingual education sometimes works.

“But that’s not what we want,” he said. “We want unqualified success, and bilingual education has never been able to do that.”

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