Legislature's Lapse Leaves Bilingual Education to Voters

They had their chance and they blew it. Now, it’s the voters’ turn.

For the second year in a row, the Legislature has squandered an opportunity to fix bilingual education. By letting pettiness, personal ambition and political opportunism get in the way of mending a flawed program, the Legislature has all but ensured the success of a proposed ballot initiative that would end it altogether.

The error in judgment occurred late Monday night when a joint House-Senate conference committee gutted House Bill 2387, proposed by Rep. Laura Knaperek, R-Tempe.

The committee removed the best part of HB 2387: a proposed three-year limit on funding for bilingual programs designed to make them more accountable.

It then covered its tracks by approving language that appears to help parents. HB 2387 requires parents to be notified when their children are placed on bilingual tracks, requires them to grant permission to keep students there, and gives them the right to opt out of bilingual programs. It also creates a legislative study committee to further examine the issue.

If passed by the full House, the bill will go to Gov. Jane Hull for her signature.

“We did not get true reform,” Knaperek said after the looting.

“But I’m a realist.”

Knaperek said a three-year limit on funding bilingual education was unacceptable to both Democrats and moderate Senate Republicans.

At first, the lip service about parental empowerment sounds good, especially given the tendency of districts to trample over the wishes of Latino parents in their rush to cash in on the bilingual boondoggle. But parents already have those rights. They make a swell welcome mat on which school officials routinely wipe their feet.

The defeat of the Knaperek bill – and it is a defeat – is a relief to bilingual bureaucrats who want to put students on bilingual tracks and throw away the key. Many Arizona districts leave students in bilingual classes for up to six years, and some leave them on for as many as 10.

But the demise of the funding limit is also good news for the band of Latino parents who have had enough of word games and want to end bilingual education with a ballot initiative for the 2000 election.

Had the Legislature adopted the limit when it was proposed last year, the gesture might have pacified bilingual critics and kept the initiative from gaining traction in Arizona. Those behind the ballot measure were worried that the Legislature might learn from its mistake and pass a funding limit this year, which they feared would snuff out support for their cause. They need not have worried. In the end, the Legislature actually helped the initiative along.

It also helped those Democrats who are looking forward to 2000 like children – emphasis on the word children – anticipating Christmas morning. For cynical opportunists, the threat of an anti-bilingual education initiative is a superb recruitment device to bring out Latino voters and scare them into voting Democratic.

Now the bilingual education debate moves to the federal arena.

Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., is expected to introduce legislation this week that pushes parental empowerment even further. The Parents Know Best bill ensures that students could not be placed in bilingual programs without parents’ permission.

This strange drama illustrates why we have ballot initiatives in the first place. If the Legislature would act responsibly and courageously on an issue like this, there’d be no need for the people to act in its place.

It also brings to mind the story about the scorpion who asks a frog to ferry him across a stream on his back. The scorpion reassures the frog that he won’t sting him because both of them would drown. Halfway across, the scorpion breaks his promise and stings the frog. As both are sinking, the frog asks why.

“I can’t help it,” explains the scorpion. “It’s my nature.”

It’s easy to figure out why the Legislature would scuttle a reform bill even though it knew that in doing so it would empower the electorate and further diminish its own relevance.

It can’t help it. It’s in its nature.

Comments are closed.