Ever learn a language in 180 days? Ron Unz, a software developer from California, recently visited Arizona to declare that you can. In fact, under his proposed “English for the Children” initiative, if you’re a child whose native language is not English, then you must.

The proposed initiative provides that English learners be placed in “structured immersion” (or intensive English as a second language) for a period of one year, or 180 school days.

After that, children must be “mainstreamed,” or placed in classes in the regular program alongside native English speakers. The initiative would also outlaw bilingual education.

Ironically, Tucson was home to “structured immersion” from 1919 to 1967. As Tucson discovered, the problem with such programs is that they fail to take into account a very important fact: School is primarily about learning content, such as language arts, math and science.

Because they do not understand the language of instruction, children tend to fall behind academically. Despite their ability to engage in simple conversations early on, it takes a number of years to learn English well enough to understand all-English instruction.

During Tucson’s English Immersion Era, less than 40 percent of Hispanic children graduated from high school each year.

The enrollment of Hispanic children plummeted to about 25 percent by 1967, at which time the city’s school district introduced bilingual education. Today, partly as a result of this innovation, nearly 90 percent of Tucson’s Hispanic students graduate.

The Arizona Department of Education reports that students in bilingual programs do better statewide. Studies with large national samples have reached similar conclusions regarding the superiority of bilingual education programs.

Meanwhile, opponents of bilingual education report that only 4 percent of English language learners are reclassified as “English proficient” each year. What they don’t tell us is that a full 73 percent of these children are now in Unz-style immersion classes, not bilingual education programs.

Little time has passed since Unz’s initiative passed in California, but in Orange Unified School District, where Unz’s program was implemented a year early, only six children in 3,549 could be mainstreamed last year. That’s a failure rate of 99.83 percent for English the Unz Way.

But Unz’s group of English-only zealots are not the only folks in Arizona who want to place arbitrary limits on children in bilingual and ESL programs. State Rep. Laura Knaperek recently introduced a bill which passed in the House of Representatives.

This bill limits support for English language learners to only three years. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Keegan has advocated a limit of four years. These proposals may seem like wise, political compromise to politicians, but the least powerful of Knaperek’s and Keegan’s constituents – the children who need time to learn English – will view it as heartless and arbitrary.

After four years, only 75 percent of English language learners know enough English to participate effectively in mainstream classes, according to Keegan’s own report. Knaperek’s and Keegan’s willingness to close the door on the weakest of the weak speaks to their true commitments as public servants.

Time limits of any sort reflect a basic distrust of learners. They appear to be guided by an underlying assumption that, if we threaten students enough with failure or expulsion, they will learn English faster, as though they are defiantly resisting the language of economic opportunity which brought them and their families to our state.

Bilingual education programs could be even better for our children. Sen. Joe Eddie Lopez has drafted an important reform bill which will strengthen well-designed bilingual education programs and revamp those in need of help.

It also strengthens parental choice, allowing families to choose the programs they want. Please urge your state senator to oppose the Knaperek bill and to support Lopez’s legislation as approved by the Appropriations Committee.

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