TUSD, lawmakers in tug of war over bilingual education

Separate forces are tugging at TUSD bilingual education.

A community committee will urge the Tucson Unified School District to increase quality, monitoring and accountability in the teaching of limited-English students.

State lawmakers are trying to restrict bilingual education programs, threatening to cut funding after students spend four years in them.

“They are (at) cross purposes,” TUSD Governing Board President Joel Ireland said. “My feeling is the Legislature wants to dismantle bilingual education and the local community wants to strengthen it.”

The TUSD Governing Board is set to hear reports Tuesday from the committee and the Intercultural Development Research Association, a Texas firm that performed a yearlong, $60,000 review of TUSD bilingual education and Hispanic studies.

TUSD offers three programs for limited-English students: bilingual education, English as a second language (ESL) classes and individual plans for students in schools with few limited-English students.

Unlike the other two programs, bilingual education allows teachers to use the students’ native language – Spanish – to teach course content and English.

The object is to make students fluent in both languages. TUSD favors this method but lacks enough teachers to place it at all schools.

It is also limited in serving students who speak languages other than Spanish.

While TUSD’s plan is seen as a national model, its implementation has been slow, said Guadalupe Romero, co-chair of the bilingual education subcommittee and principal of Davis Bilingual Magnet School.

The district is working under a 1996 agreement with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to improve bilingual education.

The office found that TUSD is failing to comply with the law in some areas, such as testing limited-English students and making sure kids who need help are placed in a program.

“The superintendent needs to make sure what is called bilingual education is really bilingual education,” Romero said.

The committee’s preliminary recommendations include:

* Improving recruitment of bilingual and ESL teachers, expanding teacher training, and ensuring that teachers use bilingual strategies correctly.

* Monitoring schools for compliance with existing bilingual education policies and laws starting in spring 1999.

* Promoting the benefits of bilingual education on international economic growth.

* Enhancing foreign language curriculum.

The committee was asked to come up with plans that could be accomplished with existing funds.

But those funds could be slashed under a bill going through the state Legislature.

House Bill 2532 would cut funding for limited-English students after four years in bilingual education or ESL programs. The bill passed in the House, and the Senate Education Committee studied it last week.

Districts around the state currently receive about $156 extra per limited-English student annually, said Laura Penny, director of the state Department of Education’s Southern Arizona office.

If the bill becomes law, TUSD would lose between $454,000 and $742,000 annually, out of about $1.1 million in state bilingual education funding, said Leonard Basurto, bilingual education director.

Roughly 75 percent of about 10,000 TUSD limited-English students have been in such programs for more than four years.

Some research states that it takes four to seven years for students to master a language.

While many students speak English, their writing and reading skills lag behind those of their peers, said Basurto, who has testified before the Legislature.

In Pueblo High School’s 12 “feeder program” schools, almost all limited-English fifth-graders in bilingual programs for five to seven years are orally proficient in English. Only about half of them, however, are literate in English. See chart.

“I don’t think anyone can make the claim that we don’t teach English in bilingual education,” said Wendy Hood, who coordinates TUSD programs under a federal bilingual education grant.

Some national studies show bilingual programs that build on the students’ native language result in higher academic achievement. But it takes time.

About 75 percent of the 269 students who made the transition into English-only classes last school year started in classes in pre- kindergarten or kindergarten.

The majority of those students were in seventh through 10th grade when they stopped receiving instruction in Spanish.

Rep. Laura Knaperek, R-Tempe, the bill’s sponsor, said the four- year cap was a “generous” compromise with other legislators who said studies prove students need only one year.

Parents and districts have the option to petition the state Department of Education if they want children to stay in programs longer.

She said she pushed for the bill because some parents complained that their children languished in programs too long.

The parents were unclear what kind of programs their children were in, however.

“I just think it’s a timely issue,” Knaperek said. “If we have one child who should have been out two years ago and he’s not, then we have a problem on our hands.”

Arizona is not the only state looking at changes in bilingual education.

California voters are set to decide in June on a ballot issue that would end bilingual education and replace it with a short-term English immersion program.

But TUSD has experienced little controversy, besides a few speakers complaining at board meetings.

One of the opponents is Maria Mendoza, a former TUSD parent who represents Hispanic plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit that led to court-ordered desegregation in 1978.

Mendoza said bilingual education harms students’ reading ability. In addition, she called it racist because students are segregated.

“They should not be teaching all the way through in Spanish because we’re an English-speaking country,” Mendoza said. “If they do this, they will be educationally dead by the fourth grade.”

TUSD officials plan to continue the program, which they say is the best way to teach English.

But educators said they realize the department needs to improve, and they will act on the findings of the reports they’ll receive Tuesday.

“There’s a belief that we are not effective and efficient in utilization of funding,” Hood said.

“Our department welcomes the findings, whatever they are, because our goal is to improve instruction for students.”

The TUSD board created the committee and hired the Texas firm last spring, after a TUSD mother filed a discrimination lawsuit against the district.

The class-action suit claims TUSD discriminates against Hispanic students by failing to run a Hispanic studies department that offers services and instruction directed toward Hispanic students.

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