One month after California voters eliminated bilingual education, a Tucson grass-roots group began work last night to place the controversial issue on the Arizona ballot.

“Within one year, we want to get an initiative on the ballot to abolish bilingual education as it exists today,” said Hector Ayala, an English teacher at Cholla High School.

He and about 20 people formed a committee last night to start a petition drive. The group, English for the Children – Arizona, met at El Rio Neighborhood Center.

“We’re looking for a core group that will seriously commit to this effort for one year,” Ayala said.

Leonard Basurto, director for bilingual education and hispanic studies for Tucson Unified School District, said putting the issue on the ballot would be “unfortunate.”

Those opposing bilingual education are “so misguided,” Basurto said. “Voters in Arizona should not be fooled like the voters in California were.”

Last month, California voters eliminated bilingual education, replacing it with an English immersion program following one year of transitional classes.

Maria Escalante Mendoza, who is leading the local effort and who represented Hispanic plaintiffs in a 1978 TUSD class-action desegregation suit, said “the time is right” because of the California vote.

“Kids can’t. read or write English, and they (TUSD officials) blame cultures and economics,” Mendoza said. “The programs directed at children have no substance in them.”

A recent report from the Arizona Department of Education shows that less than 3 percent of Arizona bilingual education students are learning enough skills to put them in mainstream classes.

Ayala said the numbers are accurate. “I see it first hand.”

But Basurto said recent statistics show bilingual students are outperforming English as a Second Language students.

Angela Champion, 21, a senior education major at the University of Arizona, said she favors abolishing bilingual ed after her experiences as a volunteer in a local fourth-grade classroom.

“One boy was so smart, his English speaking skills were great, but he couldn’t read or write,” she said at the meeting.

“I want to see kids learn English. To succeed in America you need to know English, and you need it at the college level.”

Ayala said it’s time for parents of children in bilingual education to join their fight.

“This is a rallying cry,” he said. “Hispanic parents can be too timid to come out and fight because this is a big issue to expose yourself.”

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