Winter 2000 / 2001
By an electoral landslide on Nov. 7, Arizona became the second state
to adopt an English-only schools initiative. Proposition 203, modeled on
a California measure adopted in 1998, is aimed at banning bilingual education
for virtually all children learning English as a second language.
Whether it will achieve that goal is one of the new law's many uncertainties.
Others include which students will be affected, how much native-language
instruction will be allowed, what choices parents will have, who will be
defined as an "English learner," and even when the measure will take effect.
For children whose English is limited, Proposition 203 prohibits instruction
in any language other than English, even in programs designed to teach
them a foreign or Native American language. Such students are to be placed
in a "structured English immersion" program "not normally intended to exceed
one year." While segregating these children by language proficiency, schools
would be encouraged to mix them by age and grade.
The initiative's sweeping language would appear to include most American
Indian students learning tribal languages as well as most deaf students
studying in American Sign Language. That's because large percentages of
such children are currently assessed as "limited English proficient."
Bilingual educators, who had actively opposed the initiative, nevertheless
expressed a guarded optimism about mitigating its impact.
"The battle now shifts into the hands of parents and local leaders in
individual districts," said Sal Gabaldon, a school administrator in Tucson.
He noted that even though Proposition 203 mandates a one-size-fits-all
immersion program, it also "requires bilingual education under certain
circumstances" - for example, in schools where at least 20 parental requests
for an alternative program are granted. While fearing for "students who
live in districts where parents of English learners do not have enough
political clout" to preserve the bilingual option, Gabaldon vowed that
"in Tucson Unified, we will not permit such injustice."
The state's Superintendent of Public Instruction, Lisa Graham Keegan,
pledged "to work with schools to develop an orderly transition process"
to all-English instruction. Keegan said she assumed the law's restrictions
"will not take effect until the 2001-2002 school year." But under the state
constitution, initiatives are immediately "self-executing." The law's proponents
could therefore sue for an immediate dismantling of bilingual programs.
Opponents, meanwhile, are exploring a possible legal challenge on civil
rights grounds. By requiring children to be segregated until they acquire
English, limiting their access to programs available to other students,
and restricting teachers' ability to address their individual needs, Proposition
203 authorizes, in effect, a two-tier system of education. Such disparate
treatment appears to conflict with both state and federal laws.
If California's experience is any guide, however, clear answers from
elected officials and the courts could be slow in coming.
Like the California measure, Proposition 203 was spearheaded by Ron
Unz, a Silicon Valley millionaire who has launched a nationwide assault
against bilingual education. According to reports filed with the Arizona
Secretary of State, Unz supplied more than 99 percent of the funding necessary
to place the "English for the Children" initiative on the ballot and sell
it to the voters.