PHOENIX – A Republican-backed bilingual-education bill was endorsed by a House committee yesterday with the state’s top educator urging legislators to act before commercials dictate the program’s fate.

With an initiative to abolish bilingual education possibly looming on the 2000 ballot, Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan warned that time to carefully consider the program is slipping away.

And while data on the state’s bilingual-education program is far from complete, Keegan said she supports the bill that would give schools three years to funnel non-English-speaking students into regular classrooms. After three years, the state would cut off funding, leaving school districts to foot the bill for students who continue in the program.

“I’m looking at an initiative that I think has quite a bit of support,” Keegan said. “What frightens me is the nature of the dialogue we’ve had in even trying to discuss (it). . . . It is not our best moment to discuss in 30-second sound-bites – with children listening – how we handle these programs.”

The House Education Committee approved the measure 8-4, sending it to the House floor. Committee members voted along party lines with Democrats saying they primarily were against the three-year limit.

Rep. Marion Pickens, D-Tucson, said fear of the initiative – rather than solid analysis of the bilingual-education system – seemed to be driving the bill proposed by Rep. Laura Knaperek, R-Tempe.

“This bill is not solving an education problem,” she said. “It’s solving a political problem.”

The group English for the Children Arizona took out a petition last month to replace bilingual education with English immersion programs. The proposal is similar to a measure passed by California voters in June after months of contentious, racially divided debate.

Besides time limits, Knaperek’s bill calls for more state oversight with Keegan’s office to develop standards for school districts to determine placement and removal of students in bilingual or English-as-a-second-language programs, known as ESL.

Parents also would be able to determine if their children should be in bilingual programs.

Exempt from the bill – HB2387 – would be American Indian speakers in bilingual programs.

Knaperek said she believes three years is enough time for most children to transition into a regular classroom. She also noted that her bill includes a provision that would grant a fourth-year exemption to some students.

Rep. Tom Horne, R-Phoenix, said if his children were placed in Mexico City, they would be able to operate day-to-day in Spanish within a year.

“The more mediocrity you tolerate, the more you’ll get,” he said.

Keegan said some areas of data collection on bilingual programs’ effectiveness is “very poor” and Knaperek’s bill would force school districts to give more thorough reports.

But the best available data show that about 60 percent of all bilingual students who go into regular classrooms do so within three years, she said.

Rep. Bob McLendon, D-Yuma, said he was concerned about what would happen to the students who might require more time in the program.

“What if everyone doesn’t fit in the same box?” he asked.

McLendon said the bill – however well-intentioned – doesn’t go far enough in improving the system. He called for Senate Republican leadership to give Phoenix Democrat Sen. Joe Eddie Lopez’s bilingual- education reform bill a chance.

Lopez’s bill provides for more state funding to hire bilingual teachers in addition to more oversight.

But the likelihood of the measure getting a hearing before the Senate Education Committee seems slim to none. Lopez and Democratic leaders have lobbied hard the past couple of weeks for the bill to be put on the committee’s agenda, but have met a brick wall.

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