Arizona Republic

Monday, June 12, 2000

Ariz. Should Decide School Issue

An eager young man approached me not long ago on an otherwise beautiful Arizona afternoon. 

"Sign a petition to end bilingual education, sir?" Some debate ensued, then a confession. 

"Look, I get a little over 50 cents a signature," the petition gatherer said. "Beyond that, I really don't care." 

That's disturbing. Not so much because this "citizens' initiative" isn't a grass-roots movement after all, but because not even the 50 cents for each signature is paid by Arizonans. 

Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz, who bankrolled the California initiative to ban bilingual education, is the only person to contribute to the so-called English for the Children-AZ campaign, with nearly all revenues going to a Tempe-based firm to collect signatures. 

Unz similarly paid nearly the entire expense to pass the initiative in California, where it was overwhelmingly opposed by Hispanic voters. 

Only about 30 percent of Arizona's English learners attend bilingual classes. About 60 percent are already in Unz-style immersion, also known as English as a Second Language or ESL - the program that would be mandated for all immigrant children under Unz's law. 

Immersion education was Arizonans' only choice until a generation ago. Then educators in the state began experimenting with bilingual education to address alarming dropout rates among Hispanics. 

During Tucson's English Immersion Era, fewer than 40 percent of Hispanics finished high school each year. Now, under the district's bilingual program, that's risen to nearly 90 percent! 

Bilingual education is often misunderstood. 

Like ESL, it focuses on teaching English in school. But unlike ESL, bilingual education helps students keep up academically, too, by teaching them school subjects in their native language while they gradually learn English. That's why kids in bilingual education usually do better than kids in English immersion. 

Last week, Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., announced support for the initiative to ban bilingual education. Like Unz, Salmon claims that bilingual education has a 95 percent failure rate. 

But that's just not true. 

The statistic Salmon quoted refers to the rate at which all immigrant children in the state are redesignated "fluent in English," regardless of whether they're in ESL or bilingual education. 

Because the vast majority of immigrant children are in Unz-style immersion, not bilingual education, the 95 percent "failure rate" actually reflects the poor results of the program type Unz advocates. 

Indeed, a careful look at the reports of the Arizona Department of Education reveals that children in bilingual education consistently outperform their peers in immersion on the Stanford 9 English reading test, at each grade level. 

National research has also repeatedly shown that bilingual education is superior to immersion. In two extensive reviews of the available evidence, the National Research Council, a group formed by the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that bilingual education produces superior results compared with English immersion. 

Rep. Salmon also aped Unz's claim that test scores went up in California after the passage of Proposition 227. 

That's true. But scores went up for all children, monolingual English speakers and immigrants alike, and increased for children in both bilingual education and ESL. Thus, the change in scores could not possibly have been related to Proposition 227. 

Unz isn't offering us anything new. He's just asking us to take choice away from the parents of immigrant children. 

The signature gatherers may welcome Unz's money, but none of us should welcome his interference in our state's educational policy.

Jeff Macswan is an assistant professor of education at Arizona State University.