Few kids affected by Proposition 203

Bilingual ed sparks a divisive debate

Here’s the pitch: Proposition 203 will end bilingual education and limit mostly Spanish-speaking immigrant children to one year of English immersion classes.

But that pitch, which fuels the divisive campaign, and the product are two very different things.

* In reality, the proposition would affect only about one-third, or 45,000, of the state’s English learners. That’s 6 percent of Arizona’s public school students.

* Most of the remaining 90,000 English learners wouldn’t be affected because they are in programs called English as a Second Language, where textbooks and instruction are mostly in English. They would likely be joined by kids now in bilingual classes because much English as a Second Language instruction already fits the proposition’s loose description of “English immersion.”

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And as for that one-year limit? Not likely. The proposition hopes for that, but requires that students be tested annually and “have acquired a good working knowledge of English and are able to do regular schoolwork” before moving into a regular classroom. Educators say that takes average students in any kind of program about three to five years.

Despite catastrophic claims on both sides, the proposition is so vague, experts say, that courts, along with educators and parents, would end up determining what it meant for Arizona’s schoolkids.

So, what is Proposition 203?

Mostly, it’s unnecessary, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan said.

Even Hector Ayala, a Tucson high school teacher who led the push to get the proposition on the ballot, said the proposition has plenty of wiggle room. Ayala wouldn’t have bothered with it at all, he said, if the state Legislature had agreed to limit bilingual education to three years.

“All the proposition is doing,” Ayala said, “is trying to convey the spirit of the law.”

Negotiations failed

Keegan tried but failed to negotiate an agreement between supporters and opponents before the issue hit the ballot and became a divisive racial debate. One of Keegan’s executives called the negotiations a disaster that “devolved into trash bin clanging and nastiness.”

“Intentions on both sides are good, but the rhetoric is beyond the pale,” Keegan said. “The underpinnings of 203 are highly volatile, highly political. It has to do with cultural disagreements.”

California businessman Ron Unz is funding Arizona’s campaign against bilingual classes, where children are taught much of their core courses in Spanish with Spanish language textbooks. He bankrolled a similar California proposition that passed in 1998.

“Bilingual education has destroyed countless lives of children over the decades, and a bunch of nutcases want to keep it in place,” Unz said. “It’s like little children who will hold their breath and turn blue if they don’t get something that’s bad for them.”

Unz doesn’t believe the political campaign is tearing apart Arizona, he said, because polls indicate a vast majority of state voters favor it, including Latino voters. Unz also brushes off reports from teachers and researchers who say it takes two years for even the brightest students to test out of any program, bilingual or English as a Second Language.

“Research and consulting is nuts. Those teachers have really been brainwashed,” said Unz, who predicted that if his proposition passes, within a few years there will be no Arizona children in English acquisition classes. “Of course, it will happen. Children will learn English in a couple months.”

Arizona children now average five years in all language acquisition programs, including English as a Second Language, where most bilingual kids would end up, Department of Education data show. The state’s obligation to immigrant children, Keegan said, “goes way beyond whether they can manage conversations in English.” The state is legally obligated to ensure the children understand English, and at the same time are grasping core concepts in math, history and science so they can keep up with students in regular classes, she said.

No one pretends that all of the state’s existing English language programs accomplish that goal. Some parents, even some district educators, say some underfunded programs are dumbed-down because they are too large and lack trained teachers. The state’s English learners lag about 20 points behind their peers on standardized tests.

And Unz isn’t the only one ready to impose a heavy-handed solution.

This year the state lost a federal lawsuit against all of the state’s lackluster language acquisitionprograms, and Arizona faces urgent demands to improve the way it teaches, tests, monitors and funds them. Unfortunately, the guiding philosophies behind the court order and Unz’s proposition appear to be on a collision course, Keegan said, and no one will hazard a guess which will prevail.

Adding to the confusion are individual federal court agreements with about 20 state school districts designed to improve education for minority students. Some of those agreements could conflict with Proposition 203. And no one knows the fate of bilingual programs for schools in Native American communities.

“In all likelihood there will be litigation, like there is litigation after most propositions,” said Elliot Talenfeld, education unit chief for the state Attorney General’s Office. “Attorneys and courts will be called on to determine its scope and application.”

Along with the courts, much of how Proposition 203 would affect Arizona’s public schools would be up to Keegan.

Keegan wants choice

“And I’m a choice kind of gal,” she said. If the proposition passes, Keegan will develop a wide variety of options for parents, she said. The majority of kids, whether they speak Spanish or are from Korea or Bosnia-Herzegovina, are in some form of “immersion” programs called English as a Second Language.

English as a Second Language programs already come in a variety of forms, but most use English language texts and mostly English instruction. Some classrooms have Spanish-speaking aides; others provide an hour or two of intense English language instruction along with regular classes.

“Probably a lot of these programs will simply change their names (to some sort of English immersion),” Keegan said.

The sorting out is still going on in California.

California test scores for English learners are up since the passage of Unz’s proposition, boosting theories that bilingual programs were holding kids back. Some California educators say that other reforms, such as smaller class size and an emphasis on phonics aided the jump in scores.

But bilingual education is far from dead in California.

Before the proposition passed in 1998, 29 percent of California’s whopping 1.4 million English learners were in bilingual programs, said Leroy Hamm of the California Department of Education. Since its passage, about 13 percent remain in bilingual programs, Hamm said, because of parent demands, exclusion of charter schools, court orders or appeals, or other waivers. Keegan said she expects Arizona charter schools would be included in Proposition 203.

Proposition 203 would allow parents to enforce the bilingual ban by suing any administrator or school board member who “willfully and repeatedly refuses” to comply with its dictates.

“People adapted, teachers adapted,” said Keegan about the California experiment, “and children are doing well – if not better.”

Reach the reporter at [email protected] or (602) 444-8960.

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