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Lawmakers will once again consider repealing English-only school mandate

By: - January 13, 2021 12:00 pm

For the third consecutive year, a legislative proposal seeks to repeal Arizona’s restrictive English-only mandate that education advocates have said for years holds back students who have a home language other than English.  

The proposal, House Concurrent Resolution 2005, is sponsored by Rep. John Fillmore, a Republican from Apache Junction. 

HCR2005 proposes to repeal 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 the voter-approved law, all English learners — students who have a home language other than English — are placed in English-only classrooms and can’t be taught in their home language, effectively shutting them out of bilingual education programs.

The only way to change Prop. 203’s requirements is with another ballot measure, and Fillmore’s proposal would go to the 2022 ballot if it is approved by the legislature. 

Fillmore also sponsored identical bills in the 2019 and 2020 legislative sessions. Those bills were supported by the Arizona Department of Education, education advocacy groups and other nonprofits. Last year, the proposal cleared the Education Committee with unanimous support but a Republican lawmaker held it in the Rules Committee. In 2019, the English-only repeal was approved by committees in both chambers with broad support but didn’t get scheduled to receive a final formal vote in the Senate.

Out of the 1,151,084 students enrolled in state public and charter schools in the 2019-2020 school year, more than 80,000 are English learners, according to ADE enrollment data. About 80% of the state’s English learners identify as Latino. English learners had a 4-year graduation rate of 54%, well below the overall Arizona graduation 4-year graduation rate of 79%, ADE data reports. 

Stephanie Parra, president of Arizona Latino Leaders in Education, said the voter-approved English-only mandate is a “failed policy.”

“The English-only mandate was sold to voters with the narrative that this will help (English learners) achieve the American dream, and it’s actually held an entire population of students back,” Parra said. She is also a member of the Phoenix Union High School Governing Board. 

“(HCR2005) is one of those sound policy changes that would cost the state no money and be of great significance to supporting Latino youth and our students that are English learners,” Parra said. “I commend Rep. Fillmore for continuing to pound the drum to course correct.” 

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

A 2019 poll showed voters would favor repealing the English-only law.  

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.

On Tuesday, HCR2005 was assigned to the House education and rules committees, the first procedural step needed for the proposal to advance.

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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.

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