Foes of bilingual education propose a divisive, harmful solution with their initiative that would scrap the program and require the schools instead to offer a one-year English immersion program.

Unfortunately, the initiative appears headed for the voters to decide, with initiative supporters filing 165,000 signatures Tuesday. That is far more than the 106,762 signatures required to qualify the issue for the Nov. 7 ballot.

It is easy to understand the concerns and complaints about bilingual education. This newspaper has editorialized consistently that bilingual education is broken and needs to be fixed.

Its results appear to be inadequate, to the degree that results can be measured. School systems sometimes lack clear criteria for placing students in bilingual education. And bilingual education’s goals tend to be broad, fuzzy and process-oriented, rather than striving for measurable results. A 1998 study of TUSD’s bilingual education program, for instance, found that “incomplete student data makes it virtually impossible to comprehensively gauge the effectiveness of the bilingual program.” That critique came from a consulting firm that supports bilingual education.

It seems to be only common sense to recognize that bilingual educators have brought this current political problem onto themselves by their continuing failure to get their bilingual pedagogical houses in order.

Yet, with that said, the 165,000 voters who signed the initiative were unwise to do so. Arizona would have been much better served had this initiative not made it to the ballot. However, now that the initiative appears to have achieved enough signatures to force a vote, the best course, by far, is to defeat it resoundingly.

First, using the initiative process to set school curriculums invites voter mischief. Public school curriculums should reflect the best judgment of professional educators, not the whim of the loudest or best-financed special interest group. It is easy to imagine the chaos that would erupt should a number of groups decide to try to use the initiative process to mandate that the schools teach their version of the world.

For instance, creationists might try to mandate that science classes must teach the Genesis version of the founding of the Earth. Other religious conservatives might use the initiative to stop the teaching of evolution. Abortion foes could insist that biology must teach that life begins at the moment of conception.

Beyond that, the initiative flies in the face of the well-researched fact that different people learn in different ways at different speeds. Some limited-English students may learn best in an immersion program. Others may learn best in a bilingual program. The choice of the best language program for a student is a choice for the student’s teachers and parents, not for the voters.

Then, what happens to a child who doesn’t sufficiently learn English within the mandated one year? Is the child then forced into an English-only classroom? This will hurt the child, not help him or her.

The initiative ignores, too, that not every child has a strong literacy background – in any language. The child who has high quality language interactions with his or her parents, no matter the language, is much better off than the child who has not. But this initiative would lump them all together.

Finally, this initiative punishes Hispanic children for the failure of the public schools. The initiative may not have grown out of racist impulses. Nevertheless, that is a racist outcome.

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