Twenty years ago, a group of Hispanic parents and educators, known as English for the Children – Arizona, registered their initiative at the state Capitol with the intent of replacing bilingual education with English immersion instruction for children limited in English in the K-12 public schools.
The group was committed to gathering at least 102,000 petition signatures in order to qualify their measure for the November 7, 2000, election. Ultimately, they collected 165,000 signatures and subsequently their measure, officially called Proposition 203, won at the polls with approval from 63 percent of Arizona voters.
At the time, the mostly Spanish-speaking English learners had shown dismal progress in learning English. Whereas 112,522 English learners comprised 15 percent of the total student population, only about 4 percent of them were learning enough English each year to be reclassified as “fluent English proficient.” The English for the Children members feared that the students were receiving too much of their instruction in Spanish and too little in English to ever achieve academic success, whether they were enrolled in English as a second language or bilingual education classes.
Most schools ignored the new education mandate until Tom Horne was elected Arizona superintendent of public instruction in 2002. Soon thereafter, he stated there had been abuses regarding Waiver 1 of Prop. 203 in which limited-English students, mostly Hispanics, were participating illegally in dual-language programs with 50-90 percent of their instruction conducted in Spanish. He made it clear that should schools not comply with his guidelines based on Prop. 203, they would face several penalties, such as loss of accreditation and funding.
To make sure these guidelines were enforced, the Office of English Language Acquisition Services was created, from which evolved a task force and monitors to visit schools. The academic progress of English learners improved substantially as more and more teachers were trained in structured English immersion techniques. From school year 2007-08 to 2014-15, 29 percent of English learners on average became reclassified as English proficient. Former English learners, reclassified within the previous two years, scored on average within 5 percentage points of all Arizona students in both reading and math on the state tests.
The enrollment of former English learners in Maricopa Community Colleges has gradually increased since that time. Each year their academic achievement has moved closer to that of non-Hispanic whites until it reached par with them in the last two years in most areas – indicating that their K-12 preparation has improved remarkably, at least in Maricopa County.
Sadly, this amazing progress will likely change in the years to come because the reclassification rate of English learners has declined considerably, falling to 22 percent in 2016, 16 percent in 2017, and 11 percent in 2018, because of less enforcement of the English learner law, a faulty interpretation of Waiver 1, and the availability of federal grant funds to schools that implement dual-language programs.
Our Legislature passed and the governor signed into law Senate Bill 1014 in February, with the hope that offering the schools more flexibility, that is, even less enforcement of the law established by Prop. 203 in 2000 will somehow bring about positive change. Whereas the schools will qualify for more grant money and English-dominant children will learn conversational Spanish, this radical departure from what had proven to work can only hurt Hispanic English learners, the only students consistently denied the right to learn in English in our public schools.
— Johanna Haver is a former member of the Maricopa County Community College District Board and is author of “Vindicated: Closing the Hispanic Achievement Gap through English Immersion”