Reyna Montoya was a math whiz, but she didn’t speak English when she was 13.
Neither did the kid from Russia who sat beside her four hours a day, nor the one from China nor the one from Afghanistan.
She and her classmates were there together because of Proposition 203, which banned bi-lingual education in favor of an “English immersion” approach.
Republicans and civic groups backed the 2000 ballot measure, saying that by forcing non-English speakers to speak English – and only English – in school, would allow them to pick up the language faster.
It was an argument that many voters intuitively understood. But it hasn’t been backed up by the data.
Montoya, the 28-year-old founder of Aliento, a community organization that helps undocumented kids, said being forced into the four-hour English-immersion bloc kept her from moving into an honors math class at the suggestion of her teacher, and it put her behind in all her other studies.
“I was really good at math, but because of the bloc I couldn’t make it work with my schedule … so I felt discouraged that all that seemed to matter about me wasn’t that I was good at math, but that I could not speak English,” Montoya said.
The days of English immersion may be numbered as Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman plans to make repealing the voter-approved law a legislative priority in 2020. The Legislature’s Democratic Caucus has also made a repeal one of its top priorities and Republicans are also on board.
Hoffman came close last year to getting a full repeal of the English-only education law referred to the 2020 ballot, but the measure sponsored by Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, fell short.
The House approved Fillmore’s HCR 2026 on a 59-1 vote, and it flew through the Senate Education Committee unanimously. But in the waning hours of the legislative session, the repeal was left to die, never receiving a full Senate vote.
Still, lawmakers backed serious reforms to the English-only policy. SB1014, sponsored by Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, quickly made it through both House and Senate unanimously and became one of the first bills Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law in 2019. That bill reduced the time English Language Learners, known in schools as ELL students, have to spend in an English immersion class from four hours per day to two.
But because the voter-approved initiative mandates some kind of “English immersion” program, that’s about all legislators can do – they can’t kill the policy outright without getting voter approval.
For opponents of English immersion, it was a huge step against a policy they say has failed Arizona children for nearly 20 years.
But it wasn’t enough to water down the policy
Marisol Garcia, vice president of the Arizona Education Association, said new research and data is what can be attributed to proponents of Proposition 203 coming around to now support repealing it altogether.
She said when the law was first introduced in Arizona, people just didn’t understand how linguistics or learning a second language worked. Putting students in these immersion classes was “hurting our kids.”
“Part of being an Arizonan and American is learning from each other,” Garcia said.
Nearly two decades later, Arizona’s estimated 83,000 ELL students are struggling. State data shows students who are struggling the most on the AzMERIT test are “Limited English Proficient.” Those non-native English speakers are only passing at a 4% and 9% rate in English and math, respectively.
Prop. 203 calls for ELL students to spend one year in immersion classes, then, when they can demonstrate a working knowledge of the language, they’re supposed to transition into traditional classes.
Instead, ELL students often languish in ELL classes for years.
A report from the State Board of Education found “significant deficiencies” in Arizona’s Structured English Immersion model, and concluded that Arizona’s model segregates students “both physically and academically,” doesn’t allow access to rigorous courses, doesn’t provide proper training for teachers, and is unrealistic in its goal of transitioning students into mainstream classrooms in one year.
But Montoya was determined. She said she realized quickly that if she didn’t know English well enough, she wouldn’t be able to access the same opportunities as her peers even if she was succeeding in her other classes.
“I learned [the language] pretty fast and was fortunate to test out after a year [or so],” she said.
Because they’re stuck in extended English classes, those ELL students often fall behind in other required classes and can’t graduate on time.
The most recent data from the Department of Education shows the 2017 graduation rate of Limited English Proficient students is roughly 40%.
Montoya, who is from Mexico, said she fell behind in her other classes because of the time commitment she had to learn English in a class with just three other students from different countries.
She said it was very difficult because it was a requirement to be in a four-hour bloc where she would then have to go to her other classes that only were in English and she didn’t speak the language yet. So she fell behind.
“I benefited more being in those mainstream classes because I was able to talk to native speakers,” Montoya said.
And while they’re stuck in that immersion program, they’re surrounded by other non-English speakers – almost always Spanish speakers.
“I felt isolated, no matter how hard I worked it was never good enough,” Montoya said. “It created a lot of stress and anxiety.”
Which is part of the reason Fillmore introduced his ballot referral.
The effort from Fillmore would allow schools to mix native English speakers with students learning English as an additional language in the classroom, commonly referred to as bilingual education or dual-immersion.
Fillmore suggested they take a “military or business” approach to this idea.
“Throw them in a room for a couple hours and, believe me, after a week they’ll both be able to speak a little bit of each other’s language,” he said.
Hoffman’s spokesman, Richie Taylor, said the Arizona Department of Education has not yet broached the idea with lawmakers, who are already talking about getting this accomplished.
Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, said she has seen data that would support the repeal being a good idea.
“Studies are showing more and more that if you can teach students in both languages simultaneously they can do much better in all subjects,” Udall said. Udall chairs the House Education Committee and also said the English-only law is not more successful than the previous program.
Taylor also said there seems to be a “public appetite” for repealing the law, as its deleterious effects have become more apparent to policymakers and the public in recent years.
Outside of Udall, Democrats in the Senate have already put repealing Proposition 203 on its list of priorities for the next year in a 15-page document titled “A Tale of Two Sessions.”
Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, who voted for Fillmore’s measure last session in committee, said she does not plan to introduce any bill next session on this matter.
“However, if any other legislator brings forward a bill that has a good proposition, I will be glad to hear it in my committee,” she said via a spokesperson.
Allen said she didn’t know why the bill never received a full vote from the Senate.
On the final day of the legislative session, Senate President Karen Fann introduced a floor amendment to remove two words and add a comma, thus effectively killing the bill because it would have had to go back to the House for a final read.
“It’s a tricky inside baseball move, but obviously someone was against [the bill] and wanted to slow it down to give it an excuse for it not to go through,” said Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale. “The excuse was that there wasn’t enough time.”
Sen. Kate Brophy-McGee, R-Phoenix, who also sits on the Senate Education Committee, said she’s hopeful this referral will get done next session.
“Everybody, even my most conservative colleagues are for the repeal and that has been the case both times legislation has been offered,” she said. “There are still some hurdles to overcome, but I am absolutely certain we will get there next session.”