Whoever said Arizona was boring.

Fresh from 1998’s hostilities over the Student’s First capital finance plan, teachers, lawmakers and other stakeholders in Arizona’s public education system once again are preparing to cross swords, this time over two perennially divisive educational issues: vouchers and bilingual education.

1999 is poised to become one of the most contentious years in Arizona educational politics.

As announced last month, Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan soon will unveil a plan to offer tuition vouchers to poor children who wish to attend private schools. As for bilingual education, reform is brewing in the Legislature and in the public sector.

State Senator Joe Eddie Lopez will introduce a bilingual education reform bill in the Senate. At the same time, a group called English for the Children – Arizona will be gathering signatures for a ballot proposition that would virtually eliminate bilingual education in Arizona.

Things are bound to get ugly.

Already, the players in these two debates are choosing up sides, with conservatives on one side and liberals on the other. Each team has an arsenal of inflammatory rhetoric at its disposal, with a designated pundit or two to help drive home its message.

Unfortunately, every battle has its casualties. In this case the victims will be Arizona’s schoolchildren, and just maybe, a little more of my faith in Arizona’s educational leadership.

Vouchers are an iffy proposition at best. Studies coming out of the Cleveland and Milwaukee voucher experiments are showing negligible improvements in student achievement. In fact, students in some Cleveland private schools are performing worse than their public school counterparts.

A voucher experiment here would be divisive, costly, and may harm more students than it helps. Vouchers are a dumb idea. Unfortunately, they are a dumb idea with a lot of political support.

Bilingual education, on the other hand, is a good idea with little political support. The Collier-Thomas study, which is the most comprehensive long-term study of bilingual education to date, clearly reveals that students who are in quality, dual-language bilingual education programs for six to seven years perform better on standardized tests than even their monolingual, native English speaking schoolmates.

That said, I should also mention that years of inattention and underfunding have left our bilingual education system in a mess. Today, there are only a handful of dual-language programs. Most limited English proficient students either receive no services at all or are languishing in understaffed English as a second language pullout programs.

Having starved bilingual education for years, our educational leaders have given Ron Unz, the California millionaire who is funding English for the Children – Arizona, a perfect chance to euthanize the ailing program. They have also set the stage for a partisan firestorm that is sure to become every bit as divisive and racially charged as the English Only campaign of 1988.

I am reminded of a conversation that I once had with an intelligent, educated woman who was marketing a multimedia phonics program.

I thought I’d engage her in a little friendly banter, so I asked her where she stood in the phonics vs. whole language debate.

“Phonics,” she told me, “is conservative,” adding that since she was a conservative, she naturally supported phonics.

I left shaking my head and muttering to myself that phonics was neither conservative nor liberal, but simply a pedagogical method.

I fear that Arizona’s voters will evaluate vouchers and bilingual education in much the same way. Vouchers, don’t you know, are conservative. Bilingual education is liberal.

It is as if we have decided to divide the educational world into two narrow factions and will now accept or reject every idea on the basis of its political signature.

In truth, these issues defy rigid categorization. Vouchers seem like a solid conservative idea, until you consider the fact that they will put private and religious schools on the public payroll. And bilingual education looks liberal, until you realize that developing a bilingual work force will be the key to our nation’s success in an increasingly global economy.

If we continue to assign rigid ideological labels to every educational idea, we doom public education to a life eternal partisanship. Moreover, we relegate reasoned public discourse to the political scrapheap.

This year, as bilingual education and vouchers come up for debate, lets hope that our educational leaders will remember to think outside the lines. We cannot afford to leave sound judgment drifting in the political breeze.

Kathy Renolds is a certified teacher. Her column appears every other Wednesday. The views expressed reflect those of the author.

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