Lawmakers moving toward compromise bill on bilingual education

PHOENIX – Work on a legislative bilingual education compromise is moving ahead with agreement apparently near on a time limit for students’ participation and exclusion of one method of instruction from a limit.

Trying to weaken a push for a ballot measure to eliminate bilingual education, the sponsors of rival bills said Tuesday they have made progress in initial talks but still have a ways to go.

They are negotiating with each other and Gov. Jane Hull and state Superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan, though the discussion has been delayed by wrangling over the state budget.

Lawmakers are trying to deflate a push by a citizens’ group for an initiative on the state’s 2000 ballot to ban bilingual education. It is modeled by a law enacted by California voters last year.

Rep. Laura Knaperek, a Tempe Republican who sponsored a pending bill to impose a three-year limit, said she agreed to exempt dual-language programs for a simple reason: “They work.”

Dual-language programs differ from many bilingual programs because they put English-speaking students in the same classroom as students working to learn English. Under dual-language programs, also known as two-way or bilingual immersion, instruction is alternated between languages, typically Spanish and English.

“We have to be careful in trying to save bilingual education not to hurt districts that are doing a good job teaching students how to learn English or learn both English and Spanish,” said Jaime Molera, Mrs. Hull’s education adviser.

Before being gutted by the Senate Education Committee, a bill sponsored by Sen. Joe Eddie Lopez, D-Phoenix, promoted dual-language programs. Its remaining provisions include giving parents more say on whether their children enter or leave bilingual programs and giving schools and the state added responsibilities.

Knaperek’s bill also shares many of those elements, providing a starting point for a compromise bill.

Lopez said he is willing to swallow a time limit on students’ participation. However, he said he wants automatic extensions for students’ participation if they are found not to be proficient in English at the end of the time limit.

While Knaperek wants a three-year limit, Lopez said he would accept four.

“There will be some sort of a limit. We’re still negotiating,” Knaperek said.

Lopez’s bill sought to make bilingual education more effective by increasing the supply of qualified teachers. However, a grant program included in the bill was removed by the Education Committee.

Knaperek said the shortage of qualified bilingual teachers would be studied between legislative sessions. “That’s an issue we need to tackle but not in this bill,” she said.

Knaperek’s bill awaits a formal vote in the House. Passage would send it to the Senate where changes could be made to implement a negotiated compromise.

Molera said the negotiators still may be able to talk this week.

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