A number of news reports have claimed the passage of California’s Proposition 227 in 1998 and Arizona’s Proposition 203 means the elimination of bilingual education in both states.
I hope that’s not what the voters of Arizona thought they were getting when they approved Proposition 203, because nothing can be further from the truth.
Yes, the law now provides for all students to be in English immersion – unless they want and qualify for a waiver to be in an English as a Second Language program or in bilingual education.
In fact, the proposition actually requires bilingual education in certain circumstances.
One section of the law specifically states that any school in which 20 or more students receive waivers for bilingual education must provide bilingual education.
That’s why California is expected to increase its bilingual education enrollment to nearly 200,000 students next year.
Some proponents of Proposition 203 have referred to the law’s waiver section as “loopholes” intended to affect only a few unusual cases.
As California’s numbers would suggest, they are not loopholes. They are provisions in the law specifically intended to give some parents an alternative to immersion programs and have no restrictions as to the number of students who may qualify for such waivers.
Instead, the restrictions that do appear refer to age and knowledge of English. Parents do not need loopholes or excuses to obtain waivers.
They need only the approval of school boards and principals who are willing to respect parental requests and grant them when students are qualified – nothing more and nothing less.
Who qualifies for waivers allowing participation in bilingual education programs? The two broadest categories are these: all students who are age 10 or older and all students who are under 10 and have a “working knowledge of English.”
Why then did so many thousands of us fight Proposition 203? We fought it for three critically important reasons. First, we believe students forced into immersion programs will learn English and other subjects more slowly and less effectively than they otherwise would have.
Second, we believe the proposition encourages politicians to base educational policy on ideology rather than sound research and objective data.
Finally, we believe the law undermines the rights of all parents, but especially those of language-minority students and of American Indians seeking to preserve their linguistic heritage without having to depend on the whims of an administrator.
The battle now shifts to local districts. Parents need to demand that school boards and individual principals make waivers available.
They should demand that the standards for “working knowledge of English” be reasonable and attainable “in a period not normally intended to exceed one year” and perhaps – as some proponents of 203 have asserted – in substantially shorter periods.
Those of us who have children currently participating in bilingual education programs must understand the new reality. Arizona school districts will abide by the law, at least until it is overturned or invalidated by a subsequent initiative, and parents can no longer expect bilingual education to be easily available. It will now require their active and forceful participation.
In certain districts, parents who are not able to exert enough political clout to ensure the availability of waivers will be denied justice, and their children will be saddled with a cruel and unnecessary educational burden.
Let us hope that such injustices – some already reported – are few and far between.
* Salvador Gabald?n is a curriculum specialist for Tucson Unified School District and a resource liaison at Pueblo High School. He is also co-chairman of the Arizona Language Education, a statewide, nonprofit organization interested in providing information to the public about language acquisition and language rights.