It was inevitable that bilingual education would come under scrutiny in Arizona.

First, California’s vote to limit bilingual education got everybody’s attention. Then an Arizona Department of Education report showed many students with limited English proficiency aren’t getting the English skills they need to get out of specialized language programs.

Heightened scrutiny was inevitable and desirable.

The task of educating students with limited English skills is important to the future of the state. The days when young adults could build a comfortable life with limited literacy are long gone. Today’s graduates face the challenges of a high-tech, global economy. If they fail to become truly literate in English, their losses will also be Arizona’s.

There’s evidence that what Arizona is doing for these kids isn’t working. The Department of Education report released last month showed that only 2,525 of 93,528 limited-English students – 2.7 percent – left special classes for mainstream classrooms in 1996-97.

The statistics are a bit deceptive, because the count did not consider student mobility, how long students had been in a program or the type of program.

Arizona law does not mandate that children get bilingual instruction. Both parents and schools have choices that did not exist in California prior to the recent ballot measure. In Arizona, schools can offer bilingual education programs, English-as-a-second-language programs, or they can design individualized programs.

Unfortunately, the report did not compare the effectiveness of these different approaches. Even more unfortunately, the shortage of qualified bilingual teachers limits those programs. Really good bilingual programs, which research shows have long-term benefits, are rare, say both Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan and Dan Wegener of the Central Arizona Bilingual Consortium.

Keegan is planning to convene a group of experts and interested parties to begin discussions this fall. It’s a welcome effort designed to bring cool reason to an inherently hot topic.

Bilingual education often takes an unfair rap. Conversely, any discussion of refining or replacing it is met with opposition from extremists who think it is sacrosanct and extremists who think it is an abomination.

It is neither.

It is a legitimate teaching approach that deserves a respected place at the table as discussions begin on how to better serve Arizona’s limited-English students.

Focusing attention on the best way to educate limited-English students – and building accountability into the system – will serve students well.

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