Arizona Bilingual Reform Initiative Qualifies for November Ballot

Published September 1, 2000

Arizona bilingual education reform leaders on June 28 officially filed petitions bearing the signatures required to qualify their “English for the Children” initiative for the November 7 ballot. Organizers filed 165,000 signatures with the Secretary of State, some 60,000 more than required by law.

The measure “requires that all public school instruction be conducted in English.” It is modeled after California’s Proposition 227, approved in June 1998 by a wide margin of voters, which virtually ended bilingual education in the state.

“There are thousands of parents out there who are already dissatisfied with bilingual education, but they had no voice,” said Tucson English teacher Hector Ayala, co-chairman of English for the Children.

According to the Arizona Department of Education, one in five students enrolled there is classified as Limited English Proficient, and one in four speak a language other than English at home.

Other Developments

The same week English for the Children filed its petitions, the state reached a partial settlement with plaintiffs in a bilingual education lawsuit. U.S. District Judge Alfredo Marquez had ruled in January that Arizona spends inadequately on its students in bilingual education programs, and that many teachers of bilingual programs are insufficiently trained.

The settlement reached between the parties calls for stronger requirements for individual learning plans for English learners, increased remedial instruction for students who have left bilingual programs without sufficient English skills, and a more comprehensive assessment of services provided to special education students who also are English learners.

Meanwhile, in a special session convened on education issues, state legislators reached only deadlock on another issue in that lawsuit. The state senate had authorized $400,000 to study how much funding should be increased for bilingual education programs, but the House subsequently stripped all funding for the project.

As the election draws closer, both sides of the bilingual debate have turned up the intensity of their rhetoric. A group calling itself the Arizona Language Education Council has held numerous rallies and events around the state in opposition to the English for the Children ballot measure, distributing pins proclaiming “Bilingual Education is Beautiful.” Alejandra Sotomayor, the group’s co-chairman, told one rally that English for the Children “is not an Hispanic movement. It is a paid political movement with a few Hispanics up front.”

Supporters of the initiative point to official state data showing that last year only 5.5 percent of Limited English Proficient students had learned enough English to be reclassified and graduate into mainstream classrooms taught in English. Reformers also argue that while current laws allow parents to “opt out” of programs taught in their children’s non-English native language, they are consistently denied that opt-out opportunity.

As one Glendale parent, Norma Alvarez, put it, “If your name is Alvarez, you’re in bilingual classes. They don’t test you. It’s your last name that gets you in. They stay until the eighth grade.”

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute, whose Web site is at