Tucson Citizen

Friday, June 9, 2000

Our Opinion: 
Initiative on Bilingual Ed Is Divisive, Unfair

Petition passers are fanning out across Arizona, desperately trying to beat a July 6 deadline to gather enough signatures for a plethora of initiatives that backers hope to get on the November general election ballot.

Expect to have a fistful of petitions shoved at you within the next few weeks in hopes that you'll sign all without examining any. But take a closer look and you'll find that one initiative proposal is so offensive and so potentially divisive that it doesn't deserve your support.

That is the deceptively named English Language Education for Children in Public Schools initiative - a measure that purports to improve education opportunities but would actually eliminate the rights of many parents to determine the kind of education they want for their children.

The initiative effort is being funded virtually entirely by wealthy California activist Ron Unz, who successfully engineered passage of a similar measure in that state two years ago.

It's offensive enough that this entire effort is being foisted upon us by an out-of-state agitator. But Unz wants Arizonans to OK an even more onerous and restrictive measure than the one approved in California.

At the heart of the drive is an effort to eliminate bilingual education. Students who do not speak English as their native tongue would be allowed only one year of intense English instruction, then expected to participate fully in classes taught in English.

Such brief instruction was the norm in Tucson until 1967. It didn't work. Sixty percent of local Hispanic students dropped out of school.

But perhaps the most troublesome aspect of the initiative is its elimination of the rights of parents to decide how their children will be taught.

Now, parents who do not want their children taught in bilingual education classes can opt out. But the initiative would forbid more than one year of bilingual instruction for any child unless a parent wrote a 250-word statement explaining what "special needs" the child has to require more instruction. School districts could then accept or reject the request "without explanation or legal consequence."

Why would we want to deny parents the opportunity to place their children in any legitimate education program they deem appropriate?

For some reason, bilingual education is seen by some as a threat to the American way of life. And that is ironic because the American way of life is a melting pot of cultures and languages.

There are, undoubtedly, problems with the current state of bilingual education in Arizona. Too many students stay for years in classes designed to move them into mainstream education. There have been legislative efforts to impose a limit, perhaps three years, but those have failed.

There are things that can be changed to better the educational experience of children who are not English speakers. And that is what should be done.

Bilingual education should be improved, not junked. It is this initiative that should be junked.