Arizona should not abandon bilingual education. In this fall’s general election, Arizona voters will consider Proposition 203, which would replace bilingual education with a one-year English-immersion program. The measure is backed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron K. Unz, who also engineered the proposition that dismantled California’s bilingual education program two years ago.
Since California eliminated most of its bilingual education programs, standardized test scores have risen, according to a recent article in the New York Times. Opponents of bilingual programs are using this data to support their cause, but this rush to judgment is premature.
“The California test scores don’t prove much of anything, and the folks seizing on them know it or, if they don’t, should,” wrote Arizona Republic columnist O. Ricardo Pimentel.
Test scores in California rose across the board, even in schools that retained bilingual education. California also reduced class size at the same time, so that may have had more to do with the increased test scores than anything. And the dramatic rise in test scores suggests that teachers are drilling students in test materials. In Arizona, bilingual education is working.
According to the Arizona Department of Education, children in bilingual education have scored higher on the Stanford 9 reading test in English than kids enrolled in immersion programs. Currently, parents can choose whether to enroll their children in bilingual programs. But Proposition 203 would eliminate that choice.
I am fortunate to speak Spanish and proudly align myself with my grandparents, who recognized that Spanish is not a handicap, but an asset. Our family’s presence north of the Rio Grande predates the founding of Jamestown. My grandmother, who was born in New Mexico the year it became a state in 1912, has no fond memories of the public school system that punished her for speaking Spanish and deliberately failed Hispanic students, regardless of academic skill. My grandfather, a native New Mexican who was born before statehood, was a fierce advocate of the Spanish language and went on to become a popular professor of romance languages at a regional university.
I want to maintain our native tongue. Spanish speakers are not dangerous foreigners. We are as American as the rest. English is a latecomer to the Southwest, which once belonged to Mexico and was annexed under the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. As the Chicano saying goes, “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.”
It’s not only Latino kids who would suffer if Proposition 203 passes in Arizona. Many of Arizona’s Indian tribes would also be adversely affected. That’s why they have also come out against the measure. Bilingual education programs are not perfect. Overburdened public school systems may have trouble administering them. But that’s no reason to abandon the efforts.
If people want to help Spanish-speaking students, they should advocate for better funding and administration of schools instead of punishing students simply because they did not grow up speaking the emperor’s tongue.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Antonio Lopez is a free-lance writer based in Santa Fe, N.M. Readers may write to him in care of the Progressive Media Project, 409 East Main St., Madison, Wis. 53703 or by e-mail at pmproj(AT)progressive.org.