Proposition 203 Putting Bilingual Education To Test

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Proposition 203 would scrap bilingual education in Arizona and require immigrant children still learning English to attend a one-year English immersion program.

That much everyone agrees on.

What they don't agree on is how to state the question fairly, and whether such a change would be good for the children it would affect.

On one side are those who are quick to cite what happened in California, a state where 10 percent of America's school children reside. Two years after Californians voted to end bilingual education and force 1 million Spanish-speaking children to immerse themselves in English, the average reading score of students classified as limited in English has increased by 9 percentage points, the average math score by 14 percentage points.

Because class sizes were reduced at the same time, nobody really knows what portion of the increases are due to the cessation of bilingual education. But because just the opposite was predicted and expected, most educators are duly impressed.

Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who financed the California initiative and is also behind its Arizona counterpart, is convinced that the test results vindicate him. But don't tell that to Arizona Republic columnist O. Ricardo Pimentel.

In an Aug. 24 column, Pimentel said, "The California test scores don't prove much of anything, and the folks seizing on them know it ..."

He said the increases are across the board, meaning all students improved. He also pointed out that scores increased in school districts that never had bilingual education.

The people "trumpeting these scores" are saying, "OK, it hasn't been catastrophic, so we must be right." But sometimes, Pimentel said, "harm is years in the making."

Then there is the battle over whether the proposition is worded fairly. Hector Villagra, a lawyer for the Mexican America Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the initiative "should come with a skull and crossbones." Among other problems, Villagra said, the ballot wording wrongly implies that all parents can apply for waivers if the initiative passes, and that those who do can have their children placed in bilingual or other programs when no such guarantee exists.

Maria Mendoza, co-chairwoman of English for the Children, the group supporting the initiative, disagrees.

"What matters," Mendoza said, "is that we are going to give the parents a choice to either throw out bilingual education in Arizona public schools or to keep it."

And finally there is the attitude espoused by Republic columnist Richard Ruelas. He said he is not surprised at Arizonans wanting to "cripple the education of Spanish-speaking students and ensure a steady supply of low-skilled workers."

What does surprise him is that an idea from California is catching on here.

"Since when did we think those wackos had any good ideas?" he asked.

If that sounds like some kind of reverse racism, Ruelas also said that it was California second-graders whose scores improved so dramatically, whereas "the problem really pops up in high school as students try to grasp difficult concepts with rudimentary language skills."

So how is a voter to make an enlightened decision in the voting booth on election day?

"The proposition imposes limitations on how long a child can be in a bilingual program," Payson Unified School District Superintendent Herb Weissenfels said. "It allows up to three years, whereas now a child could be in a bilingual program for all 12 years of his education."

The test scores in California came from just one large district, Oceanside, he said, but they showed that the scores of children who "have been in an immersion program where they were surrounded almost entirely by English" increased much more than the average student's scores. "That's powerful support for doing away with bilingual education," he added.

Weissenfels said he thinks that bilingual education has become "a crutch for people not to function in what is really our native language, English. Those kinds of programs have failed our children. They never did get them to a point where they could read or write or comprehend in English."

There are some programs, he said, that are designed to help students move from their native language to English, and those programs have been very successful.

"I think ultimately what this proposition will do is move those programs to the forefront and these others to the back. I worked down near the border for a while, and a lot of the kids who graduated still couldn't speak English properly because we let them function in Spanish. We weren't doing them any favors."

How would this proposition impact schools in the Rim country, which have a small but growing Hispanic population?

"The other extreme," Weissenfels said, "is to say, 'If you come up here, we give you nothing.' I don't buy that either."

I think we owe it to that child to provide support services so that child can function in English without losing that native language so they can be truly bilingual.

"You live up here, you need to learn English, but don't give up what you have. If we can make it work that way, I think it's a good thing."

For what it's worth, Weissenfels said, he intends to vote yes.

"If it reads the way I've been led to believe," he said, "I'll vote for it."

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