State bilingual ed programs are appalling failures

Arizona is doing an appalling job of moving students out of bilingual education programs and into the mainstream schooling that they need to succeed.

That is the inescapable conclusion to be drawn from a state Department of Education report released late last week.

The report found that less than 10 percent of Tucson students enrolled in bilingual education programs learned enough English last year to enter regular classrooms.

That sounds bad, but Tucson is actually ahead of the rest of Arizona. Statewide, only about 1 in 20 bilingual students moved to regular classrooms last year.

The figures varied considerably among districts. In Flowing Wells, for example, 27 percent of the bilingual education students moved into regular classrooms last year. But in the Tucson Unified School District, only 5.7 percent made the transition. And in Marana, none did.

What this clearly illustrates is that bilingual education programs can accomplish what they are designed to do – teach students English so they can join their peers in a general education setting – if the district has a commitment to that goal.

But what is also shows is that some districts are content to coddle students in bilingual education classes virtually indefinitely.

Money certainly plays a role in this equation. Districts receive about $150 more per year for every student enrolled in bilingual education classes. So there is a built-in financial incentive to keep students in bilingual education longer.

But three weeks ago, a federal judge ruled that the funding level was “arbitrary and capricious” and agreed with plaintiffs in a lawsuit who said the state is not spending enough on bilingual education.

More money is certainly needed. But unless that money comes with some caveats, there is no assurance that students will do anything other than continue to linger in bilingual education classes.

The Legislature has discussed imposing a three-year-per-student limit on bilingual education. That seems reasonable. It would give school districts incentive to teach students English and move them into the mainstream.

Some districts have shown that bilingual education can work. The challenge is to make it work for all Arizona children.

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