PHOENIX — A legislative committee on Wednesday endorsed a bill to limit how long the state will pay for a student’s bilingual education, with supporters defending the proposal as a common-sense alternative to a proposed ballot measure’s outright ban.
“Something has to be done to help these children speak and understand English,” said Rep. Linda Gray, R-Glendale.
The House Education Committee’s 8-4 vote was party line, with Republicans voting for the bill (HB2387) and Democrats against.
Throughout Wednesday’s hearing on the bill introduced by Rep. Laura Knaperek and 16 other Republicans, there were references to a proposed ban which critics of bilingual education hope to put on the state’s 2000 ballot.
Modeled after a new voter-approved law in California, it would require that students not fluent in English be put in special intensive “sheltered English immersion” programs to learn English as quickly as possible.
As with the initiative’s backers, Knaperek argued that many students linger in bilingual education programs too long and that they would do better academically if they were in regular classes.
“Three years is plenty of time to transition into the English language,” Knaperek said.
The bill allows exceptions to the three-year limit on state funding for bilingual education, though a student’s parents would have to ask the state superintendent of public instruction for a waiver.
The limit — which would not apply to Native American language programs — would not prohibit students from continuing in bilingual education. However, a district would not get the extra state money for that student’s instruction.
Other provisions of the bill include making school districts use common language to describe their respective types of bilingual education programs so parents and others could compare apples to apples.
Also, the state would develop standard criteria for districts to use in deciding whether to place students in bilingual education.
In addition, a student’s parents would have veto power over his or her enrollment in a bilingual program and would be able to have the student removed from the program within five days of making a request.
“This bill does a lot of good things,” Knaperek said. “It’s parent driven. It’s more information.”
Also pending in the GOP-controlled Legislature but yet to get a hearing is a Democratic bill supported by many bilingual education advocates. That bill introduced by Sen. Joe Eddie Lopez of Phoenix would limit funding to only those programs deemed effective, provide new funding for teacher training and give parents new rights to withdraw their children from bilingual programs.
Bilingual education supporters argued that the three-year limit was arbitrary and ignored students’ individual needs.
“Its hazardous to our society. We will need them to be English proficient even if they aren’t after three years,” said Leonard Basurto, a Tucson Unified School District administrator.
Some potential opposition to Knaperek’s bill evaporated because of the initiative.
A statewide group of school administrators is troubled by the three-year limit but took a neutral position on the bill.
“There is an initiative out there and something’s got to be done,” said the group’s lobbyist, Mike Smith. “This is reality.”
Similarly, Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan spoke more against the initiative than for the bill, pleading for in-depth discussions on the issues involved “before we have to go to commercials that quite frankly depict us in ways that I think are not going to be lovely.”
Keegan said 75 percent of students who successfully transition out of bilingual education do so within four years but that those who transition are only about 12 percent of the students in such programs.
However, Basurto and others criticized the data from Keegan’s department, saying it tracked only instruction provided by individual districts without indicating whether students were taught in more than one district before leaving a bilingual education program in one of them.
Democrats on the House committee expressed frustration that the only bill being heard in the Legislature was Knaperek’s and not the Lopez bill.
“I’m also concerned about what might happen if we don’t take some of sort of a stand” in support of bilingual education, said Rep. Kathi Foster, D-Phoenix.
Knaperek’s bill now goes to the full House. Passage would send it to the Senate.