Arizona Republic

Friday, July 17, 1998

Tucson Group Seeks To End Bilingual Education
By RUBEN NAVARETTE, JR., The Arizona Republic

Concerned that too few bilingual students are becoming proficient in English, more than a dozen Tucson parents and educators have begun pushing for a ballot initiative to end bilingual education in Arizona.

Their worries are based partly on findings by the Arizona Department of Education last month that just 2.8 percent of students classified Limited English Proficient in the state learn enough English to enter the academic mainstream.

The group, English for the Children of Arizona, has been joined in its concerns by Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan, who said she believes a major change in bilingual education is imminent.

Mary Mendoza of Tucson, one of the group's leaders, said the figure is not surprising.

"There's no academic component to bilingual programs," she said. "Their goal is to keep Mexican students illiterate."

Last month, California voters approved an initiative to end bilingual education in that state. Faced with the same kind of measure in Arizona, the state's bilingual educators are scrambling to explain figures in last month's Department of Education report.

Some doubt the numbers altogether -- particularly that so few students become proficient in English.

"I question whether the figures are really that low," said Barbara Volk, director of related services for the Peoria Unified School District.

Volk said that in Peoria 71 percent of students in bilingual programs exit within three years and an additional 16 percent leave within five years.

Some accept the figures but complain about a lack of a common vision for what bilingual programs should be. Others say another factor could be a lack of accountability by districts for the success of bilingual programs. And some concede that the lack of oversight leads to students staying in bilingual classes too long, up to nine years in some districts.

The state's report, the first assessment of bilingual programs in four years, came at a time when native-language instruction is under fire across the country.

The most dramatic assault occurred in California, where voters approved Proposition 227, which requires that students be placed in an English-immersion program after one year of transition classes. Bilingual supporters went to court to block the measure. However, on Wednesday, a federal judge denied the request and cleared the way for the initiative to be implemented as soon as this fall.

Despite claims by some that assaults on bilingual programs are rooted in anti-Hispanic sentiment, much of the recent criticism is coming from Hispanic parents who are concerned that teaching students in their native language might keep them from learning English as quickly.

In Tucson, the group of parents and educators has met several times to plot strategy for launching a similar ballot initiative in Arizona.

The group is concerned that districts are actually harming students -- especially Hispanics -- by hindering acquisition of English.

Some say that although administrators claim parents can request that their children be removed from bilingual programs, actually moving students is nearly impossible. Others say the bilingual educators have shifted away from the goal of teaching English and toward maintaining students' ability to speak their native language.

"Bilingual education has turned from a transitional model to one of native-language instruction," said Hector Ayala, a leader of the group.

Ayala, an English teacher at Cholla High School in Tucson, said bilingual programs also try to improve students' self-esteem and preserve their cultural identity.

That view is shared by Keegan, who cited her department's figures as evidence.

"They point to the fact that we've lost sight of what these programs are for, that being for students to learn English," she said.