It’s time for those on both sides of the Great Bilingual War to put down their dogma and climb out of the trenches with their minds open.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan, who held a series of unsuccessful meetings on the subject last year, says “we can’t” have an intelligent debate on bilingual education because it’s become too emotionally charged.

But we must.

Arizona is not serving students with limited English proficiency well enough. We can glean that much – and little else – from a Department of Education report. It shows that children whose primary language is Spanish or Navajo average well below native English speakers on the Stanford 9 reading achievement test.

But the report doesn’t offer enough information to shape intelligent reform. By Keegan’s own reckoning, it reflects “terrible” reporting procedures and offers data of questionable accuracy.

Among its flaws: No information was received from schools representing 56,000 children. And the report includes seventh- through 12th-graders in a chart that’s supposed to represent reading scores in kindergarten through sixth grade. (Third- through sixth-graders show up in a chart supposedly representing seventh through 12th grades.)

Nor can the report be used to bless or condemn specific educational approaches because it lumps too many different programs together in a few overbroad categories. It doesn’t distinguish among the various programs being used in the state’s classrooms.

Unfortunately, a lack of information hasn’t hindered would-be reformers.

A bill by Rep. Laura Knaperek cuts off state aid for students in any bilingual programs after three years. Keegan supports this measure, even though her own report suggests bilingual programs are more effective than other teaching approaches. The bill also calls for needed state oversight.

In Tucson, a group modeled on Californian Ron Unz’s successful anti-bilingual initiative is seeking a year 2000 ballot measure that would replace bilingual education with immersion. It has Unz’s support.

Sen. Joe Eddie Lopez offered a bill based on the premise that bilingual education needs scrutiny and improvement, rather than arbitrary limitations or outright elimination. It called for extensive state oversight, but many of its requirements for accurate reporting and evaluation were gutted in committee.

These approaches are generally sincere efforts to address a serious problem. But none is based on solid information about what’s happening in Arizona classrooms because that information does not exist. Keegan’s report was supposed to compile such data, but didn’t. Meetings she organized last year to discuss the issue degenerated into public shouting matches over preconceptions.

It’s time for a truce.

Reform should be based on the kind of solid information that’s lacking. Lopez and Knaperek should follow the model of former GOP Rep. Freddy Hershberger and Democratic Sen. Ruth Solomon, who put together a committee of experts several years ago to look for ways to improve the child welfare system. That group continues to develop legislation targeted at carefully defined problems.

Lopez and Knaperek ought to shelve their bills and form a task force of knowledgeable people who understand the intricacies of educating students with limited English skills. The goal should be to develop reform based on reason, not rhetoric. Those circulating a petition under a Californian’s guidance ought to join the effort to find an answer that fits Arizona.

It’s time to put egos and ideologies aside and address the needs of Arizona’s children.

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