Statements made by state schools superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan this week indicate that the end of bilingual education in Arizona might not come this fall after all.
Keegan told a group of Scottsdale parents Tuesday that she was concerned more about student achievement than whether bilingual education continues in Arizona classrooms. Keegan has said since then that her comments do not conflict with the new law.
With school districts across the state trying to decipher how to comply with the new law and adequately serve students with limited English skills, Keegan’s comments led some to believe she was thumbing her nose at the initiative voters overwhelmingly passed in November.
“She is indicating by her quotes that she is above the law, that she, rather than the people of Arizona, can decide the law” said Ron Unz, the California businessman who helped lead the anti- bilingual effort here and in other states.
Keegan has spent the past two days clarifying her statements, assuring both sides of the divisive issue that she will comply with the new law.
“Of course I’m going to enforce the proposition,” Keegan said yesterday. “But I’ve never interpreted the initiative as English-only.”
“I don’t read anything in the law that says (a teacher) can’t speak to a child in Spanish.”
In a memo Keegan sent yesterday to Gov. Jane Hull, state lawmakers and teachers explaining her statements to the Scottsdale parents, she wrote:
“I am particularly eager for our classroom teachers to feel our appreciation for the job they are doing for our children, rather than for them to be encouraged to feel either confused or even fearful of the coming changes due to the passage of Proposition 203.
“Where we have students being taught primarily in languages other than English, of course it is time now to begin plans for the coming change. I will certainly do my part to uphold the law and particularly to ensure that the academic record of all students reflects that they are learning English and their subject material well.”
Keegan told Hull her office still is working with the state Attorney General’s Office to interpret the effects of the initiative.
She said, “Specific details, such as the amount of time that can be spent in other language instruction or what penalties can or will be enforced for noncompliance, are being worked out.”
“I fully anticipate being able to address those issues well before the end of this school year, which will give schools and teachers plenty of time to prepare.”
Her office has previously told school districts to be ready to implement the initiative by the start of the next school year.
The law effectively eliminates existing bilingual education programs in favor of structured English- immersion programs.
Waivers are available but are intended to be difficult to get.
Hector Ayala, a Tucson high school teacher who helped lead the 203 effort here, welcomed Keegan’s effort to clarify her recent statements because some bilingual education advocates could mistakingly believe they will continue current programs “with impunity.”
“I think she’s probably not being very clear,” said Ayala. “English immersion is the law. Anything else is breaking the law.”
Unz was less accepting of Keegan’s recent comments about the initiative.
“I must say I was very shocked” after reading newspaper accounts of Keegan’s statements.
“If she feels she doesn’t want to enforce the law, she can be sued, personally bankrupted and taken out of office,” he said.
“I hope she does not put herself in that position.”
Jeannie Favela, director of bilingual education for the Sunnyside Unified School District, supported Keegan, saying the superintendent’s comments are within the scope of the law.
“The way I read it, she’s basically restating the law,” Favela said. “Bilingual education is permitted.”
Favela said her office expects to tell the district governing board, parents and teachers by next month how it will implement the initiative.
Similarly, TUSD officials said a public hearing is expected by the end of this month.
* Contact Hipolito R. Corella at 573-4191 or at [email protected]