Arizona takes page from California lesson book

Next month, state votes on a proposition to replace bilingual education with English-immersion programs.

Tucson parent and PTA head Maria Mendoza still remembers the June night two years ago when she stayed up late for election returns from neighboring California.

"I wanted to see if Hispanic parents supported the end of bilingual education," says Mrs. Mendoza, who has spent 30 years trying to phase out such programs in favor of English immersion programs in her state. "When I found out that, in fact, they did, I knew it was time to end bilingual education in Arizona, as well."

Now Mendoza and supporters have qualified an initiative for the Nov. 7 ballot that would force Arizona educators to scrap bilingual education programs in the state and have educators teach only in English.

Called Proposition 203, the measure is modeled after the California initiative that won overwhelmingly in 1998 and now has test scores that proponents say prove the success of the law.

"The success of this law in California is giving a huge boost to those who want to copy it in other states," says Ron Unz, the California millionaire who bankrolled the Prop. 227 campaign and has given $150,000 of his own money to professional signature gatherers in Arizona to get sufficient signatures there to qualify the measure. New York, Massachusetts, and Colorado are forming committees to pursue the dismantling of bilingual education in those states. "The ripple is hitting Arizona first and headed beyond," says Mr. Unz.

The pro-immersion forces have been emboldened because, despite predictions of catastrophe in California - home to 1 in 10 of the nation's public-school children - results seem positive. From 1998 to 2000, elementary school students in the grades most affected by the law, grades 2 through 6, raised their mean percentile scores by 35 percent in reading, 43 percent in math, 32 percent in language, and 44 percent in spelling.

Critics of the measures in both states point out that the rising scores could have been the result of a $4 billion state program to shrink class sizes in California - which was implemented over the same period.

But some analyses have shown that the class-size reduction had raised mean percentile scores statewide only 2 to 3 percent. And several former proponents of bilingual education now have changed their minds.

One school superintendent, Ken Noonan of Oceanside, Calif., has said that he now not only favors English immersion, but believes it should begin on the first day of school.

But detractors say Arizona is different from California in several respects, including the success rates of bilingual programs already in place. "In this rush to dismantle Arizona's programs, people are overlooking the facts," says state Sen. Joe Eddie Lopez. He quotes figures from the state superintendent showing that students in Grades 1 through 12 in bilingual programs scored an average of 13 points higher than those who used English immersion.

The Arizona proposal is somewhat stricter than the California law it was modeled on. In California, parents who still want bilingual programs can petition and obtain them for their kids. A similar measure is written into the Arizona version, but it is more demanding. And penalties for non-compliance are more restrictive.

Parents would have to fill out a long application that includes a space for a 250-word essay describing how their children would benefit from bilingual education. And teachers or administrators found guilty of willfully violating the immersion law could be sued, held personally liable by parents, and removed from office for five years.

"We put this stronger language in the Arizona initiative to deter those folks who want to drag their heals the way some in California have," says Unz.

Public sentiment seems to favor the proposed measure so far. A Friday poll released by the Arizona Republic shows nearly three-quarters of voters favor English immersion programs over bilingual education.

Critics worry that Arizona voters are not sufficiently aware of how much local control they are in danger of losing if the new law is passed.

"The advertisements and press accounts of this law are very incomplete," says Carlos Vallejo, professor of education at Arizona State University and a member of two organizations fighting the initiative, "English, Plus, More" and the Arizona Language Education Council. "Arizonans have always prided themselves on the amount of choice that parents have in their children's education. This bill will deprive them of that."

But proponents say it is precisely the "no-looking-back" quality of English immersion classes that forces students to really learn English.

"All I can tell you is that from what I have seen, [bilingual education] just doesn't work," says Mendoza. "They don't learn to speak or read English properly, and we have a high percentage of Latinos dropping out because they cannot continue with their education. I say, let's learn a lesson from California."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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