A war could be brewing in Tucson—often called the “cradle of bilingual education”—now that California voters have approved a measure toppling bilingual education there.
A grass-roots campaign to eliminate bilingual education in Arizona is gearing up.
And state Rep. Laura Knaperek, R-Tempe, plans to draft another bill—similar to one that passed the House but died in the Senate this year—that would limit the time a student could be enrolled in bilingual education or English as a Second Language classes.
Also, the Arizona Department of Education is coming out with a report this month that says less than 3 percent of Arizona students in bilingual education are gaining the skills necessary to enter mainstream courses.
“The California vote worries us a lot,” said Leonard Basurto, director of the TUSD Bilingual Education and Hispanic Studies Department.
Still, he said, TUSD is in “much, much better shape” than school districts in California, because it has qualified personnel to teach bilingual education.
“What happened in California was that they needed so many bilingual teachers it was impossible to keep up with the demand and so they had to do it with minimally trained personnel,” Basurto said. “Where they did have qualified people (in California) they did very well.”
But Monica Mendoza, who is leading the grass-roots effort to overturn bilingual education in Arizona, said she is “very happy for the children of California.”
Bilingual education, she said, “is a conspiratorial, criminal, anti-American program whose objectives are to legally segregate and discriminate against our minority children by not teaching them to be proficient in the English language. In turn, it qualifies school districts for millions of federal dollars by maintaining our children as functional illiterates.
“Bilingual programs are killer programs because children can?t reach their potential because they can?t read and write,” said Mendoza, who has suggested for decades that intensive phonics is the way to teach people to speak English.
Mendoza, the representative for Hispanic plaintiffs in a TUSD desegregation class-action suit settled in 1978, said local opponents of bilingual education are “mainly parents of children who dislike bilingual education.”
They “know this is why their children can?t read and write—who can?t be mainstreamed because of what bilingual education has done for them.”
Jean Favela, director of bilingual education at Sunnyside Unified School District, acknowledges that the instruction “is not a magic bullet.”
“It has to be good,” she said. “If a kid gets pulled out and gets 10 minutes of ESL, it?s called bilingual education in some places. If there is a teacher?s aide in the classroom and she helps students a little, maybe that is called bilingual education.
“Schools need more and better teachers. Kids need options. One-size-fits-all doesn?t do it. With the number of kids in our country who are English language learners, we need a wide range of options?And any program is only as good as what happens day to day in an individual classroom. In Tucson we have some really strong programs,” Favela said.
She predicted that California teachers and students will suffer with the elimination of bilingual education.
“What?s going on in California is that mainstream teachers will find it?s a burden for them,” Favela said. “It?s ludicrous to think that in one year of immersion all students are going to know enough.
“Over time, the kids won?t do as well. If you are taking Japanese, how long would it take you to do chemistry in Japanese?” she asked. “After three years of Japanese you could probably converse well but you might not be able to get all the nuances of reading textbooks and processing information that moves quickly. That?s the support they need.”
Sunnyside has about 4,100 of its 14,000 students enrolled in some form of bilingual education, Favela said.
About 200 to 300 students are mainstreamed each year. “It?s not like kids are being trapped in a program. Once they are fluent enough they mainstream out.”
TUSD, Basurto said, has a comprehensive plan for bilingual education and has worked hard to hire and maintain qualified bilingual instructors.
Basurto said it was ridiculous for students to keep their first language and learn English in a one-year immersion plan like that proposed in California.
“Segregating all students for one year?then mainstreaming from the second year on—those students are going to fail. And we?re not guessing. We know this,” he said.
He said he knows the TUSD program works because students who have gone through the bilingual program outperform other students on standardized tests once they are mainstreamed.
“No generation in the past has learned English faster than now,” Basurto said. “And the high school graduation level for Hispanics is at a higher level than ever. What the critics are doing are ignoring research and history.”
About 300 to 400 TUSD students in the bilingual program are mainstreamed each year. And each year, the district gets about 3,000 more students who need bilingual education, Basurto said.
TUSD has about 700 bilingual education teachers out of more than 3,300 teachers total.
Tucson became known as the “cradle of bilingual education” because it has been in this community for more than three decades, making it one of the oldest programs in the nation,” Favela said.
She and other local educators say that because of the history of bilingual education here, there is much support for it in Tucson.
That is not to say supporters aren?t anticipating a fight.
Basurto said supporters, working through the 450-member Tucson Association for Bilingual Education, are “reorganizing so we can be prepared if it comes.”
Mendoza said her group, which doesn?t have a name yet, is organizing so it can address the TUSD school board this summer before the board votes on bilingual education.
Her group also is considering a ballot initiative similar to the one that ended bilingual education in California.
“We were just waiting to see how the people (in California) were going to vote. Now we?re going to see if what happened in California could happen here,” she said. “It?s our best chance in years.”
Rep. Laura Knaperek, R-Tempe, said she is committed to introducing another bill to limit the number of years a student can be enrolled in bilingual education courses.
Knaperek said she is considering a cap of three to five years.
“As I started working on this bill I found that we are one of only a few states in the nation that doesn?t have a cap, and that looks like a mistake,” she said.