Effort Begins to Kill Bilingual Education in Arizona

July 15, 1998 — Concerned that too few bilingual students are becoming proficient in English, more than a dozen Tucson parents and educators have begun pushing for a ballot initiative to end bilingual education in Arizona.

Their worries are based partly on findings by the Arizona Department of Education last month that just 2.8 percent of students classified Limited English Proficient in the state learn enough English to enter the academic mainstream.

And they have been joined in their concerns by Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan, who said she believes a major change in bilingual education is imminent.

Mary Mendoza of Tucson, one of the leaders of the group, said the figure is not surprising.

“There’s no academic component to bilingual programs,” she said. “Their goal is to keep Mexican students illiterate.”

Last month, California voters approved an initiative to end bilingual education in that state. Faced with the same kind of measure here, the state’s bilingual educators are scrambling to explain figures in last month’s Department of Education report.

Some doubt the numbers altogether — particularly that so few students become proficient in English.

“I question whether the figures are really that low,” said Barbara Volk, director of related services for the Peoria Unified School District. Volk said that, in Peoria, 71% of students in bilingual programs exit within three years and an additional 16% leave within five years.

Some accept the figures but complain about a lack of a common vision for what bilingual programs should be. Others say another factor could be a lack of accountability by districts for the success of bilingual programs.

The state’s report, the first assessment of bilingual programs in four years, came at a time when native-language instruction is under fire across the country.

The most dramatic assault occurred in California, where voters approved Proposition 227, which requires that all students be placed in English classrooms. A hearing is scheduled for Wednesday on a request for an injunction to keep the measure from being implemented.

Despite cries of “racism” from bilingual supporters, much of the recent criticism is coming from Hispanic parents who are concerned that teaching students in their native language might keep them from learning English as quickly.

In Tucson, the group of parents and educators has met several times to plot strategy for launching a similar ballot initiative in Arizona.

The group is concerned that districts are actually harming students — especially Hispanics — by leaving them in bilingual classes too long.

Some say that while administrators claim parents can request that their children be removed from bilingual programs, removing students is nearly impossible.Others claim that the bilingual educators have shifted away from the goal of teaching English and toward maintaining students’ ability to speak their native language.

“Bilingual education has turned from a transitional model to one of native-language instruction,” said Hector Ayala, a leader of the group.

Ayala, an English teacher at Cholla High School in Tucson, said bilingual programs also try to improve students’ self-esteem and preserve their cultural identity.

That view is shared by Keegan, who cited her department’s figures as evidence.

“They point to the fact that we’ve lost sight of what these programs are for, that being for students to learn English,” she said.

She agreed that the emphasis of many programs has strayed from that goal.

And while Keegan believes that a ballot initiative in Arizona may be a blunt instrument that “forces everyone to choose sides,” she remains confident that some kind of reform is imminent. She said it may be aimed at limiting the number of years that students spend on a bilingual track.

“Something’s going to happen in the Legislature this year,” she said.

Meanwhile, Ayala said representatives of the Tucson group will be traveling to Phoenix on Tuesday to meet with Rep. Laura Knaperek, R-Tempe, who this year sponsored an unsuccesful bill to limit state funding of bilingual programs to three years. Knaperek could not be reached for comment.

But whatever happens in the Legislature, members of the Tucson group want to put their initiative on the ballot. Ayala said the group — English for the Children of Arizona — has contacted the sponsors of California’s Proposition 227 and plans to launch a ballot initiative here in time for the 2000 election.

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