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Arizona legislative session ends without English-only law repeal

By: - May 29, 2019 11:26 am

Free image via Pixabay

A proposal to ask voters to repeal the state’s English-only law and instead favor bilingual education failed to make the cut this legislative session.

After stalling in the Senate for over a month, House Concurrent Resolution 2026 — proposed by Rep. John Fillmore, an Apache Junction Republican — moved forward quickly last week as lawmakers rushed to pass the budget and other measures before ending the annual legislative session.

Senate Democrats and Republicans approved HCR2026 in caucus meetings on May 23. It was given preliminary approval of the Senate two days later, but the session ended before it could receive a formal vote by the entire Senate.

HCR2026 was a repeal of Arizona’s English-only model, officially known as Structured English Immersion. The framework for the state’s SEI model was mainly established by Proposition 203 in 2000. As a result of this law, all English learners (children who have a home language other than English) can’t be taught in their home language and are placed in English-only classrooms.

The proposal to end the practice had broad support from legislators and was backed by the Arizona Department of Education and education groups like the Arizona Education Association. A poll also showed voters would favor repealing the English-only law.  

Ylenia Aguilar, who supported HCR 2026 with the national Latino-advoacy group UnidosUS (formerly National Council of La Raza), said she was optimistic about the proposal succeeding in the next legislative session.

“There is a future for the repeal because of the amount of support that we received from everyone,” Aguilar said. “For me, that’s the biggest takeaway, that we at least know what we need to do for our English learners.”

Fillmore’s proposal required that English learners “receive the highest quality of education, master the English language, and have access to high-quality, innovative research-based language programs.”

Advocates for reform of Arizona’s SEI standard point to research showing English-only models — especially those that group students by language proficiency instead of grade level like Arizona’s — are less effective in academic achievement than dual immersion and other bilingual approaches. Dual-immersion programs mix in the same classroom native English-speakers and students learning English.

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.

HCR 2026 would have opened up dual-immersion classrooms to English learners — classrooms like Luis Valencia’s at Encanto Elementary School in Phoenix.

Luis Valencia
Luis Valencia teaches in Spanish as part of the dual-language program at Encanto Elementary School in Phoenix. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

He teaches in the school’s dual-language program. His third grade classroom is covered with posters in Spanish, English-Spanish dictionaries and several books in Spanish. For half of the day, students learn the academic content in Spanish with Valencia, and then move to another teacher’s classroom to continue the rest of the lessons in English.

English learners – like Valencia was when he moved to the U.S. from Mexico at age 12 – are mostly off-limits in his classroom.  

“Only English speakers are allowed to be in Spanish classrooms, which doesn’t make any sense,” Valencia said. He wishes students learning English could be part of the dual-immersion program.

“They would find so much benefits… using the (home) language to learn,” Valencia said.

The families, too, of SEI students would benefit. They’d be able to better communicate with teachers and be more involved in their kids education.

“I feel like if (English learners) were in this program, they would feel a little bit better about themselves, the family would feel better, they would have more support, parents would have more freedom to come in and talk to me about a particular issue,” he said. “That’s why I feel we should have a lot more programs that are more inclusive to those students, with those needs. Students who are doing really well academically but don’t have the language, they would flourish in these programs.”

If a proposal like HCR2026 passes in the next legislative session, it would go before voters in the 2020 general election.

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Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for education, immigration, political, and public safety reporting and Spanish-language news and feature reporting. Laura worked for The Arizona Republic and La Voz Arizona for four years, covering city government, economic development, immigration, politics and trade. In 2017, Laura traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border for “The Wall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning project produced by The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. She is a native of Bogotá, Colombia and lived in Puerto Rico and Boston before moving to Phoenix in 2014. Catch her researching travel deals, feasting on mariscos or playing soccer.