State education chief Lisa Graham Keegan said Tuesday that she will allow Arizona schools to continue bilingual education, as long as students are learning English and making academic progress.

Although Keegan denied that she is failing to enforce an anti-bilingual education initiative approved by voters Nov. 7, her comments before the Scottsdale Parent Council indicated that she at least will not pursue the law with vigor.

“Bilingual programs are successful when kids are speaking two languages, and their academics are on par. Do what you want and make it work, and nobody is going to go ballistic,” Keegan said in one of her first public speeches since being passed over by President-elect George W. Bush for the U.S. secretary of Education post.

Proposition 203 aims to end bilingual education in favor of placing children with limited English skills in an intensive, English-only program.

Norma Alvarez, a Glendale resident who helped drum up support for the measure, said Keegan cannot selectively enforce the law.

“If there’s a law, we have to enforce it,” Alvarez said. “If not, our work has been for nothing.”

Keegan denied that she is not following the law.

“The way we’ll know if they’re not following (Proposition) 203 is if the kids are making zero progress. Then yes, we’ll talk to the school. The bottom line is, academic progress as judged by tests that are in English each year,” Keegan said.

State Sen. Joe Eddie Lopez, D-Phoenix, who led the charge against Proposition 203, said Keegan’s is the most practical approach until the Arizona attorney general and the courts sort out the vague language of the new state law.

But teachers and administrators who interpret Keegan’s comments as providing the freedom to continue teaching in a child’s home language, most often Spanish, could open themselves up to lawsuits under the new law, Lopez said.

“There has to be more focus than complete laissez-faire and telling schools they can do what they want,” said Lopez, who will hold an informal legislative hearing on bilingual education today.

Keegan said she is more concerned with children making academic progress and learning English than she is in what method gets them there. Under the provisions of Proposition 203, children will be tested annually on their English skills, and that will determine what is working, she said.

“If what you’re doing is traditionally successful and on an academic par, go right on doing that,” she said in a later interview with The Arizona Republic. “But the sad fact is many of the programs are not successful. If they are not, they should be changing those anyway. I think it’s unfortunate people are waiting to see whether I would enforce it, or whether the (attorney general) would enforce it.”

Keegan opposed placing Proposition 203 on November’s ballot.

Supporters of the law argue that bilingual education is a failure and prevents immigrant children from learning English. Opponents of the initiative say the new law restricts parent choice and takes a one-size-fits-all approach to education.

Keegan said her office is consulting with Attorney General Janet Napolitano to determine guidelines for implementing Proposition 203, which takes effect this fall.

Napolitano also is looking at the guidelines for granting waivers, which allow children to enroll in bilingual programs provided they are already proficient in English.

Keegan’s comments Tuesday about bilingual education seemed to confuse Scottsdale Superintendent Barbara Erwin and parents who turned out to hear the speech. Erwin said she interpreted Keegan’s statements to mean that successful bilingual programs could continue.

“I’m going to have to get clarification,” Erwin told parents during a question-and-answer session after Keegan had left.

Hector Ayala, a Tucson high school teacher who led the push to get Proposition 203 on the ballot, said school districts that flout the law and whose students continue to show poor progress in learning English and academics will have to be held accountable.

“Somebody has to be in charge of that, certainly not me,” Ayala said. “The state is going to have to somehow create a monitoring arm to do that, and not in a punitive fashion.”

Republic reporter Pat Kossan contributed to this article.

Reach the reporter at [email protected] or (602) 444-6881.

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