Overwhelming Support for Arizona Bilingual Initiative

Published November 1, 2000

Arizona voters will decide the fate of their state’s bilingual programs on November 7. Proposition 203, modeled after California’s 1998 Proposition 227, would replace all bilingual education in the Grand Canyon State with intensive English immersion programs.

A September 22 Arizona Republic poll found the initiative favored by a margin of 74-19 percent among registered voters. Recent endorsements include Representative Matt Salmon (R-Tempe); Rep. Laura Knaperek, Chair of the Education Committee in the Arizona House of Representatives; and Jeff Flake, Republican candidate for Congress from the First Congressional District.

Knaperek, a longtime leader for bilingual reform in Arizona, recently announced her support for the plan after studying how English learners in California have fared since bilingual education programs there were replaced. In the two years since Prop 227 was approved, second grade English learners improved their standardized test scores by 9 percentile points in reading and 14 in math, according to an August New York Times report.

“The swiftness of the California results has convinced me there is too much to lose” by not passing Arizona’s Prop 203, she said.

Although the initiative has polled strongly, persistent inaccuracies about bilingual education have clouded recent press coverage. One oft-cited but erroneous piece of information concerns an Arizona Department of Education report that allegedly found students in bilingual education programs have outperformed their peers in English as a Second Language classes.

But examination of the January 2000 ADE report indicates higher scores for only one program–secondary bilingual education for grades 7-12. All other bilingual programs underperformed ESL. Moreover, the report’s test scores and reclassification rates are woefully incomplete since school districts were not required to report results for all students. Despite that self-selection of results, test scores for English learners in every program were far below the state average.

Even more damaging, though, is the report’s own assessment that the reported data are inaccurate. The report warns that, in some cases, “schools and districts reported conflicting information, causing confusion and making analysis difficult.”

“These data are self-reported and unaudited and therefore I would be extremely cautious in drawing any conclusions from them,” said Arizona Department of Education spokeswoman Laura Penny.

A more reliable indicator of the success of Arizona’s bilingual education program may be the reports filed with the U.S. Department of Education by districts receiving federal bilingual grants. According to an analysis of these documents conducted by the Lexington Institute, nearly all of the programs failed to achieve key objectives concerning student performance. In several of the programs examined, fewer than half of participating students managed to achieve any improvement in their reading scores.

Nonetheless, school officials directing these programs dedicated significant resources to peripheral activities such as traveling to out-of-state teacher conferences and holding seminars on “Cultural Teaching of Wildlife” and “Hispanic Culture in the Classroom.”

“The issue is the absolute, abysmal failure of bilingual education programs,” declared Congressional candidate Flake. “Fortunately, wiser heads are prevailing in Arizona, where parents are demanding structured English immersion.”

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