Arizona has begun a debate on the future of bilingual education in this state, which has 112,000 limited-English-speaking students.

English for the Children, a group of Latino parents and educators from Tucson and Glendale, has filed an initiative for the 2000 election requiring that all students be placed in English-language classrooms. The initiative, modeled upon one passed by California voters last year, would allow children to remain in bilingual classes only if their parents requested a waiver.

In the second installment of a dialogue on bilingual education, Republic columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr., a former doctoral student in education and substitute teacher, and Mike Martinez, superintendent of the Globe School District, discuss the issue.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.: Mike, the debate is about whether bilingual education should be improved, better-funded, reformed, eliminated or just left alone.

One reform is increasing parental control so that parents have more of a say as to whether their children receive bilingual instruction. That apparently isn’t happening now, no matter what district officials claim.

Theories of bilingual education don’t mean much. What matters is practice and how theories are implemented in the “real world” of public schools.

As a school superintendent, you work in that world. Do you support the English for the Children initiative? If not, do you think the status quo is working and just needs, as some suggest, more funding and more attention? What about children who seem to be languishing on bilingual tracks for up to nine years and appear to not be learning English well enough?

School administrators are tight-lipped on hot issues, but, really, how well is the system working?

MIKE MARTINEZ: It’s unfortunate that the discussion about bilingual education has reached such a heated stage, with the threat of an initiative – which I don’t support – hovering above. These discussions are four or five years late. Many of us can tell you that the truth is, the present system is faltering and plagued with many serious problems.

First and foremost is the severe shortage of certificated personnel to drive these programs. An analysis of the effectiveness of a program without that acknowledgement is folly and something never included in reports issued by the Arizona Department of Education.

Secondly, there is the nearly absolute absence of monitoring. We are subject to a systematic auditing process with respect to everything else, and yet bilingual and English as a Second Language (ESL) programs are unmonitored and unaccountable except for the requisite responsibility to do so from within. It is that internal negligence that’s to blame for some of the horror stories.

Our problems rest more with how well the laws have been implemented, how the programs have (or have not) been staffed, and how well the programs have been monitored – not with whether bilingual education is effective.

A quality program supported by fair and appropriate resources, and delivered by a certified, qualified teacher, yields results.

I cannot support the English for the Children initiative for many reasons; the divisiveness that would result is reason alone.

However, reform of what we now have is certainly overdue.

NAVARRETTE: The debate isn’t just heated but polarized. Those who want to end bilingual education are feuding with those who want to keep it in its current form. There’s no in-between.

But you’re not in either camp. You don’t support the initiative, and yet you admit that the current system is “faltering and plagued with many serious problems” – a concession that many true believers aren’t gutsy enough to make.

But you’re not off the hook. One reason that the discussion didn’t happen earlier is that people like you, who knew all along that the system was broken, kept quiet. You didn’t challenge the true believers, didn’t fix the problems yourselves or police the industry.

Nor did many call upon the state to increase monitoring of bilingual programs. Instead, the bilingual education establishment, school administrators and lobbies like the Arizona Association of Bilingual Education have long told the state to keep its nose out of bilingual education and allow for district “local control.” They demanded district autonomy, less rules and regulation, and, of course, more money.

Now, the state, under Superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan, has finally begun to evaluate these programs, and officials are coming up with bad news about low English-transition rates and student achievement.

Just a few weeks ago, the Education Department found, for the second year in a row, that despite $361 million in federal and state bilingual funding, less than 4 percent of Limited English Proficient students in 1997-98 had learned enough English to transfer into mainstream classes.

Faced with these pitiful results, those same pro-bilingual interests are suddenly dancing in the opposite direction, squealing about how there should have been more state control. The contradiction makes your head spin.

There has been, we both know, a deplorable mismanagement of bilingual programs by school officials. That’s due in part to the fact that they treat bilingual programs as little more than an afterthought. And – let’s be blunt – that’s because these programs primarily serve Latino students, whom those officials expect little from in the first place and whose parents don’t apply the sort of political pressure that superintendents and school boards respond to.

So, we have an ugly and indeed racist system now in place in which a whole category of students are being exploited because of their race. That’s not new. What is new is that those doing harm aren’t called racists. They’re called liberals and they support bilingual education.

Lastly, you say that you won’t support the initiative to end bilingual education, in part because of its divisiveness. Well, there was another social movement not long ago that was divisive and generated hurt feelings. But it was necessary to free people who had been neglected, exploited and abused.

It was called the civil-rights movement. Welcome to its latest manifestation.

MARTINEZ: Latest manifestation? I would contend that the movement has never ended. We have come but a few steps up a very steep staircase.

Sadly perhaps, you may be right that divisiveness and hurt feelings are precisely what will be needed to chart the course. My concern rests with the non-educational and, yes, racist overtones that will result in a political decision leaving nothing meaningful for the children who need us the most. How elimination of the laws will result in a better educational process when the present laws are not enforced escapes me. There is no conclusive research on the effectiveness of immersion programs.

What is conclusive is that educating non-English-speaking immigrants has always been a matter of heated debate. One has only to review our contentious history, such as events in San Francisco in 1873. The election of an anti-immigrant school board majority led to the abolition of schools where French and German had been the primary language of instruction and all French- and German-speaking teachers were fired. Or events in New York during the 1920s, where the poor academic achievement of Italian immigrant children brought about the pejorative term “retardation.”

The issues have not changed, only the ethnic identities. I find little encouragement that the answers rest with the political process.

There is some validity in your assertion that “we” did not scream loudly enough about the problems. However, those problems are as diverse and as complex as the individuals involved. To expect one to “police” others without having the authority or access to data is unrealistic.

During the mid-1980s, many of us voiced our concerns at the scarcity of qualified personnel to implement the bilingual education mandate.

When I arrived here in 1994, the bilingual program at the Globe District existed only on paper. There were no assessments, no parent consent forms and no certificated teaching staff. Yet, our reported Limited English Proficient (LEP) numbers were close to 300 students.

I called the Department of Education to inform them of our non- compliance status and request that they hold off on an audit and allow me the opportunity to make corrections. I was told not to worry, that although it was their suspicion that we, and many other districts, were not in compliance, the support personnel to conduct audits were not there. Also not there, it was confided to me, was the support at higher levels to force compliance.

No doubt, some school districts have to change, and effective programs should be models for all. The “roundup” mentality to identifying LEP children must go. And the fact that not all children are reaching optimal levels should occupy our time and effort until that is achieved.

Ponder this however: Our statutory requirements on bilingual and ESL programs are but a decade and a half old. When one considers that the programs are possibly either understaffed, poorly managed, ignored, underfunded, unfunded at the local level and/or riddled with inconsistent instructional delivery methods, one could conclude that the majority of what we have now are really immersion programs.

So, it could be that the recent report on the programs’ ineffectiveness is really a report on . . . well, you get what I mean, don’t you?

NAVARRETTE: Yes, I do. You’re saying the state’s figures – while appearing to be critical of “bilingual” programs – are really critical of a reality in Arizona schools that is closer to English immersion.

I disagree. Rather I’m convinced that what we have in many of the state’s school districts is neither pure “bilingual education” as set out in theory, nor the old English immersion model, but a strange hybrid of both. Because of the enormous pass-the-buck autonomy given to school districts by the state, that thing called “bilingual education” varies from district to district and even from classroom to classroom. That’s part of the problem.

You say that there’s no research on the effectiveness of immersion programs. Why do you suppose that is? You can find two sides of any public policy issue, but not this one.

The “data” – compiled over 25 years by researchers from Jim Cummins to James Crawford to Stephen Krashen to Virginia Collier – is lopsidedly in support of bilingual programs. Supporters of the status quo never ask how it could be that all that “analysis” hasn’t yielded even one critical study. They should smell a rat.

They might flip these studies to the “acknowledgements” page and see who funds them. They’ll find that these “objective” critiques were almost always paid for by grants from the bilingual education office of the U.S. Department of Education or by pro-bilingual organizations. They got their money’s worth.

Also, the research came along well after 1968 – when Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act. Despite the romantic lore that the research produced the law, it was the other way around. The research was launched to justify a government program that already existed.

But an exhaustive analysis of 72 studies by professor Christine Rossell of the University of Massachusetts found that only a handful of them hold water by employing scientific methods and being longitudinal in nature (assessing results over a long period of time). Of those studies that did make the cut, Rossell says, none of them proves that bilingual programs are any better than immersion programs at reaching the goal of English acquisition.

Now, if the new goal is to maintain a student’s native language, then that’s something else.

You blame the state for not forcing districts to do a better job. But you forget two things: the bilingual education establishment demanded autonomy and told the state to mind its own business and keep the money coming; and now that Superintendent Keegan has come forward with reports, she’s been blasted for it.

No wonder Keegan’s predecessors avoided the issue. If you really want the Education Department to keep monitoring, then you and others have to get off the sidelines and support her. You can’t let her swing in the wind.

You doubt the effectiveness of political solutions to existing problems, but what’s left? These are publicly funded programs. Shouldn’t the people of Arizona, who are paying for these programs, have a say in whether they continue to fund them, especially when many of them are failing?

And what about the Latino parents who can’t get their kids out of these linguistic prisons? What recourse do they have, if not through the political arena? They haven’t been able to count on you and others to come to their aid, so why shouldn’t they have a say at the ballot box?

And why not give parents who want to leave their kids in bilingual programs the right to leave them in and those who want to pull them out the right to do that too? That’s what the proposed ballot initiative would do.

And don’t tell me about how the law already requires that. We both know that districts are ignoring that statute along with parents’ wishes. Why not support giving the law teeth so as to restore public confidence in whatever bilingual programs may be working?

MARTINEZ: As I stated earlier, a reworking of the current laws is not opposed by this administrator. A program which has qualified personnel, which is accountable, which has an ironclad parent-consent component and which is part of a mandated reporting process would clearly improve the current statute – especially if the program of instruction is individualized and self-paced.

However, let’s not understate or ignore the first consideration: personnel. For many districts, it is no longer a problem but a crisis.

The mixed-bag results with the research is frustrating yet probably expected, given the tumultuous background that has accompanied it. We may have to endure many more research attempts and include even those hybridized or mutant forms before longitudinal- based answers are determined. Sadly, politics may not allow that luxury, given our checkered history on the subject.

I might also add here that the Rossell studies have problems as well, particularly the Berkeley Unified District test-score comparisons, in that, once again, the details on what bilingual education actually and functionally was are missing.

As inconclusive as the research may be – for reasons you have offered and others – I am certain that, limping or not, the data reveal little in the way of a political crisis and not enough of one to prop up a forum for all of the hangers-on to push their non- education agendas.

If amending the laws to, as you say, give it real teeth is necessary, then so be it. Although the public has the right to exercise the political process, I do not see the need here. The need that I do see is to place the appropriate individuals at the table to fix the components that need repair – with this issue and with all those in the public education system.

We agree, though: The sidelines are no place for those who know the truths or seek them. I don’t believe I’m alone in the willingness to work toward meaningful change.

One thing is true with or without initiatives: Public schools need to do whatever it takes to make all children successful learners. The melting pot that is America is not now, nor has it ever been, in critical condition because it taught some of its children in whatever language or fashion it took to assimilate them.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. can be reached at 444-4977 or at [email protected] via e-mail. Mike Martinez can be reached at (520) 425-8905 or at martinez via e-mail.

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