Arizona Bilingual Programs Must Discontinue by Fall

Published March 1, 2001

Arizona’s landmark new law repealing bilingual education, passed nearly 2-1 by Arizona voters in November, may soon be facing rough waters as it moves into its implementation stage.

California’s Proposition 227, on which the Arizona law was modeled, needed to overcome numerous legal, logistical, and administrative hurdles after it passed in 1998. Many school officials and teachers, including those in the Los Angeles Unified School District, demonstrated brazen defiance in resisting the new law.

But Arizona’s Proposition 203 is tougher, eliminating the loophole that allowed entire California school districts to receive waivers permitting them to keep their bilingual education classes.

But comments made in January by Arizona Superintendent for Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan have caused some leaders to express concern about whether she intends to fully comply with the law. Keegan explained that she interprets the law as allowing teachers “to supplement their instruction in the student’s primary [non-English] language,” and that “courses of instruction that include English plus other language instruction may still be offered under certain circumstances.” She said she would not penalize districts that continued to hire new bilingual instructors.

Keegan’s remarks met with sharp criticism from Proposition 203 supporters, including Ron Unz, author of the California law and a leader in Arizona bilingual reform efforts. Unz pointed out that under the new law, school officials and even elected officials who fail to implement the bilingual ban may be held personally liable for damages. The law also stipulates that elected officials who do not sufficiently enforce English immersion instruction can be immediately removed from office.

“I think she’s probably not being very clear,” proposition cochairman Hector Ayala said of Keegan’s remarks. “English immersion is the law. Anything else is breaking the law.”

Keegan spokeswoman Laura Penny clarified the initial remarks, stating, “For us, the bottom line is student achievement.” Penny added the new law does not designate any enforcement authority to Keegan’s Department of Education, and that adding “language police” was not in the department’s plans. “The only way that a school is going to pop up on our radar screen as being in violation of Proposition 203,” Penny said, “is if its [English learners] are still not achieving.”

In a separate statement, State Attorney General Janet Napolitano announced school districts would have until the beginning of the new school year to replace bilingual programs with the one-year English immersion classes called for under the new law. Such a significant change “cannot occur overnight” and would require districts to make preparations, Napolitano said. At press time it had not been determined whether the English language testing required of all students under the new law would begin this school year or next.

Cost of Reform Disputed

A report released in January by Democrats in the Arizona state senate found that to meet a standing ruling by a federal judge would cost the state an additional $170 million in funding for educational programs for English learners.

The study was undertaken in response to Federal District Court Judge Alfredo Marquez’ decision from the 1992 case Flores v. Arizona. If Marquez is not satisfied that the state is adequately complying with the ruling, he could cut federal funds or even shut down schools.

Not everyone agreed with the Democrats’ cost projection, however. “We’ve got to get students learning English as soon as possible,” said State Senator Ken Bennett, the Republican chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “But I doubt that it costs another $171 million in the budget to do this.”

Based on past performance, it is not clear that simply spending more money will achieve better results. The Lexington Institute recently examined the federally funded programs that account for one-third of the money Arizona spends on education programs for its 140,000 English learners. Among the study’s findings:

  • Nearly all programs examined either failed to meet major program objectives, submitted unmeasurable objectives, or contained no results-based objectives.
  • Some programs failed to demonstrate any significant growth in English proficiency for more than half of their students.

Meanwhile, program funds were spent on tangential activities, including out-of-state travel for program officials and seminars on “The Hegemony of English” and “Cultural Teaching of Wildlife.”

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute. His email address is [email protected].

For more information . . .

For a free copy of the Lexington Institute’s study, “Letting English Learners Down: Federal Bilingual Education Programs in Arizona,” email your request to [email protected]. Be sure to tell him you saw this article in School Reform News!