Bill to repeal Arizona’s English-only law moves forward

By: - March 13, 2019 9:43 am

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Arizona lawmakers widely support a measure that would repeal a voter-approved policy forbidding bilingual education.

House Concurrent Resolution 2026, sponsored by Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, passed 59-1 in the House of Representatives on Feb. 28, and the Senate Education Committee gave it unanimous approval Tuesday.

HCR2026 would repeal Arizona’s English-only standards. It would allow schools to mix in the same classroom native English-speakers and students learning English, a method known as dual-immersion. While the main goal of English-only programs is proficiency and literacy in English, dual-immersion aims for students to be bilingual and biliterate in English and another language.

Voter approval of Proposition 203 in 2000 set up Arizona’s English-only model, officially known as Structured English Immersion. All children who have a home language other than English are classified as English learners. Under the English-only standard, the students’ home language can’t be used to teach English and they are placed in English-only classrooms.

HCR2026 is another move by state legislators to reform how Arizona schools teach its 79,000 English learners. One of the first bills Gov. Doug Ducey signed this year, Senate Bill 1014, eliminates a rigid daily four-hour bloc of instruction viewed by some as segregation. This new policy reduces the required minimum to two hours and allows school administrators to decide how to schedule that time.

Fillmore’s proposal goes much further than SB1014 to dismantle decades-old educational policy focusing solely on English and asks voters to favor bilingualism. Fillmore said Tuesday he views SB1014 as a band-aid, and wanted to do more to benefit all children.

“Why are we penalizing the (English learner) students for four hours and them not having the opportunity to go out and study geography or history or math, while the other kids were?” he said in the Senate committee. He added native English speakers also lose on the opportunity to learn a second language from their peers.

HCR2026 requires the state’s public schools ensure students whose native language is not English “receive the highest quality of education,” “master the English language” and “access high-quality, innovative research-based language programs.”

The proposal would keep in place the Arizona English Language Learners Assessment (AZELLA), a test the Arizona Department of Education uses to measure language proficiency of English learners. The bill would eliminate an enforcement statute that allows parents to sue a school or school board members if they fail to implement English-only standards.

If passed by the full Senate, HCR2026 would go before voters in the 2020 general election.

‘A happy day for me’

English learners make up 7 percent of the state’s K-12 population, according to ADE.

Jonathan Alanis, policy analyst with the Department of Education, said during a House Education Committee hearing last month those students have an “abysmal” high school graduation rate of 18 percent. The agency supports Fillmore’s proposal.

“Lifting the ban on English-only education, coupled with the recent signing of SB1014, would serve as a tremendous step to greater efforts to support (English learner) students,” Alanis said. “It will help promote multilingual education for all students across Arizona.”

Spanish is the most common home language spoken by English learners in Arizona, followed by Arabic, Vietnamese, Somali and Navajo, according to ADE.

Advocates for reform in Arizona’s standard point to research showing English-only models — specially those that group students by language proficiency instead of grade level — are less effective in terms of academic achievement than dual immersion and other bilingual approaches.

“English-only is not best practice because it punishes students for not speaking English, rather than providing support for English language instruction which will help students learn core content,” Ylenia Aguilar, an organizer with UnidosUS, said in the House hearing last month.

Vanessa Arredondo, a third grade teacher in La Paz County, also spoke at the House hearing.

“I have seen how these students are losing their native language due to the English-only law,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong, my goal is to make sure my students are fluent English speakers, but we could be using their native language as an asset to help them acquire a new language.”

On Tuesday, both Republican and Democrat legislators thanked Fillmore for the proposal.

Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, said in previous years he has introduced bills to repeal Arizona’s English-only law. He said earlier this year he thought a proposal like this was not “politically possible.”

“I’ve never been more glad to be wrong about my political instincts than I am today,” Quezada said. “It means a lot that we can see this can move forward. This is a happy day for me.”

Update: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the bill would get rid of AZELLA.

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Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

Laura Gómez Rodriguez previously covered state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror.