There’s talk of a voter initiative to stop bilingual education, and much of it is in Spanish.
Ten Tucson people – most Spanish-speakers, about half of them educators – started a movement to fight bilingual education about six weeks ago.
Since then, English for the Children Arizona has gained members in Glendale and Nogales – as well as the interest of a millionaire who backed a successful California proposition on the same issue.
Walking door-to-door in the neighborhood behind southside Wakefield Middle School last week, members of the group found support among Spanish-speaking parents who think schools need to try harder to teach their children English.
Maria Orendain, who has three girls in Wakefield and Hollinger Elementary School, said she would prefer her children learn more English so they can teach her. Her oldest daughter can hardly speak English.
"I told (the school officials) that I want my children to learn more English," Orendain told Maria Mendoza, a founding member of the local group.
A few doors down, resident Maria Irene Yanes said she supports bilingual education for her three children, but admits she favors more English in the schools.
After moving here from Mexico three years ago, she has noticed that her 9-year-old boy is learning English faster than her oldest daughter, Berenice, who just graduated from Pueblo High Magnet School. However, Berenice made all A grades in one year of bilingual classes and two years of all-English courses. She has a scholarship to Pima Community College, where she plans to take reading and language classes.
Down the road, neighbor Manuela Borchardt said she believes in English-only education. "Spanish, you learn at home," Borchardt said.
English for the Children Arizona hopes to eliminate bilingual education – the main method used for limited-English students in Sunnyside and Tucson unified school districts – and replace it with one year of English immersion.
Meeting with legislators
Members have met with legislators and Lisa Graham Keegan, state Superintendent of Public Instruction.
They were visited last month by Ron Unz, the Orange County software millionaire who is the father of California’s Proposition 227. Mendoza called him soon after the California effort passed June 2.
Arizona’s effort is the first he has considered helping, although he has spoken with others in Colorado, Texas, Washington and New York.
Unz said in a recent phone interview he made no formal commitment but is interested because of the group’s organization, as well as Arizona’s number of limited-English students and the state’s proximity to California.
"There’s a very good chance that we will help these people financially," Unz said.
Unz’s support could give the group the funding needed for a statewide effort, said member Hector Ayala.
$1.2 million spent
The campaign for California’s so-called "Unz Initiative" cost about $1.2 million, Unz said. The law goes into effect today, since a federal judge refused to block it last month.
The 9th U.S. Circuit of Appeals upheld that ban on Friday.
English for the Children Arizona has yet to organize formally or take out petitions. It can start collecting the needed 113,000 signatures in November for a ballot measure in 2000.
But members are already busy.
They held four meetings and five times went into southside neighborhoods to knock on doors.
They maintain bilingual education is holding children back by teaching them in Spanish. TUSD, known nationwide as the "cradle of bilingual education," has failed in the past 30 years, they say.
Bilingual educators say limited-English students learn best when they are taught basic content in their primary language and use more English as time goes on.
English is used from day one, said Leonard Basurto, TUSD bilingual education director. It takes five to seven years to master a language, bilingual education experts say.
Foes of bilingual education contend they are not against immigrants or bilingualism, but want parents to have a say in their children’s education, Ayala said.
Members hear horror stories about parents who are intimidated into keeping their children in bilingual classes, children who can’t read and students who are labeled as limited-English so the district can collect an extra $156 a year per child in subsidies.
The key members are Mendoza and Ayala.
Mendoza was the main Hispanic plaintiff in the class-action TUSD desegregation lawsuit, resulting in a 1978 court order to improve minorities’ education. She would prefer an intensive English phonics program, rather than the bilingual education she protested in the 1970s.
Ayala, who has taken master bilingual education classes, is an English teacher at Cholla High Magnet School, which receives students from bilingual schools. He said his ninth-graders come with low skills in both languages, forcing him to order elementary-level books such as "Charlotte’s Web."
Spanish is the first language for Mendoza and Ayala, who was born in Mexico. They both learned English through immersion in U.S. schools.
In arguing against bilingual education, members use an often quoted figure from a recent Department of Education report that says 2.7 percent of limited-English students passed the tests required to go into mainstream English classes in 1996-97.
The group’s brochure states those students are in bilingual education. The report says something different.
Students lumped together
The report lumps all limited-English students together, no matter what program they are taking. That means some are in the English courses that the group favors; others are in bilingual education or nothing.
The report also states that students in bilingual programs outperformed on standardized tests other students who took English as a Second Language.
The members also use those standardized test scores to back their opinion, showing that 19 of 20 lowest-scoring TUSD schools use bilingual education. Basurto said those schools’ test scores are lower primarily because they are in poorer neighborhoods.
"Even among dominant English speakers, you will find that those schools in low socioeconomic neighborhoods also have the lowest scores on achievement tests," Basurto said.