Arizona Bilingual Reform Initiative Gains Momentum

Published August 1, 2000

Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Arizona), who has repeatedly championed bilingual education reform in the U.S. Congress, returned home last month to give his endorsement to a ballot initiative that would end bilingual education in Arizona. He is the highest-ranking public official to endorse the measure to date.

“The ‘English for the Children Initiative’ will provide every child in Arizona the tools they need to learn English,” Salmon told a June 5 news conference in Phoenix. “[It] will rescue the students who are isolated in the academic Siberia of bilingual education.”

Organizers of the initiative reportedly have collected the required signatures and plan to make an official filing within a few weeks.

Salmon’s endorsement touched off a flurry of activity and news coverage as both sides intensified their efforts. Critics of the proposition pointed to a report released earlier this year by the Arizona Department of Education, which they say shows students in the state’s bilingual programs outperforming those in English immersion.

But analysts say the study, the state’s annual evaluation of English acquisition programs, does not support such a conclusion. Instead, it shows that data, including test scores, were not reported for more than one-third of Arizona’s English learners. An additional one-fourth of English learners were exempted from reporting test scores at the discretion of their school districts. State Superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan declared in the report’s introduction that even for those English learners whose scores were reported, “in some cases schools and districts reported conflicting information, causing confusion and making analysis difficult.”

Keegan has been highly critical of her state’s bilingual education programs, but she does not support the initiative. State Rep. Laura Knaperek, a bilingual reform leader in the state House of Representatives, also opposes the measure.

Salmon explained his endorsement of the initiative by pointing to “a stalemate on bilingual education reform in the State Legislature [which] leaves the initiative process as the only avenue to assist English language learners in Arizona.”

Two years ago, California voters resoundingly approved a proposition ending bilingual education programs. It was widely reported that less than 7 percent of California’s English learners were acquiring the English skills necessary to be reclassified as proficient and graduate into mainstream classrooms. Last year, that figure for Arizona was 5.5 percent. Several studies have concluded that California English learners are thriving under the state’s new English immersion program.

Salmon, a member of the House Education Committee, authored “The Parents Know Best Act” to enact reforms at the federal level requiring informed parental consent before children are placed in bilingual or other programs targeted for English learners. The House approved the measure last September. It also reversed a mandate that the U.S. Department of Education give funding preference to programs using non-English native language instruction.

Action on both measures is now in the hands of the U.S. Senate, where partisan politics and election-year maneuvering threaten to prevent the passage of any major school reform legislation for the remainder of the current session.

Another House Education Committee Member, Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colorado), currently chairs an initiative that seeks to end bilingual education programs in Colorado.

There has been speculation that Salmon, who is retiring from Congress at the end of this year, will run for governor when incumbent Jane Hull’s term expires in 2003.

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank based in Arlington, Virginia.

For more information . . .

The official Web site of the Arizona bilingual initiative is News about the Arizona and Colorado initiatives can be found on the “English for the Children” Web site at