Bills Would Rescind Law That Guarantees Mostly Spanish-Speaking Children Can Learn English

( Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture/Creative Commons)

Ignoring history leads to its repetition – as is happening presently as bills SCR1020 and HCR 2005 move through the Arizona legislature. The bills’ purpose is to rescind the law that guarantees mostly Spanish-speaking children learn English by being taught in English, rather than in their native language.

Already, many schools in the Tucson Unified School District are offering dual-language instruction, due to a questionable interpretation of a court order. Spanish-speaking kindergartners and first graders receive only 30 minutes of English instruction each day – at the age children can most easily and quickly learn a second language. Through sequential grades, English instruction increases, but not enough to close the gap.  Consequently, only 30% of TUSD students are passing the English language arts portion of the State assessments (2019 State records).

At the end of the Obama administration, the government began to encourage dual-language instruction by offering lucrative grants.  Advocates who consider native language and culture maintenance as well as Critical Race Theory more important than academic achievement pushed it along.  Meanwhile, the federal government forced Arizona to raise its cut-off score signifying “English proficient” so that it appeared the immersion law was failing students when the opposite had been happening – as long as the law was enforced.  The grant money and federal/state funds, meant specifically for English learners, paid for this very expensive instruction.

As a result of the immersion law, based on Arizona Proposition 203 that passed in 2000 with 63% of the vote, the number of English learners declined from 112,522 in 1999 to 83,000 in 2017, although the total number of Hispanic children in Arizona schools had ballooned to 45-47 percent.  The rate of English proficiency had progressed from 4% in 1999 to 29% on average up to the 2014-2015 school year.  At the time, the Arizona Board of Education and the media praised the schools for these results.

Fortunately, an increasing number of former English learners has been able to prepare for careers of choice, rather than be stuck in low-paying menial jobs.  As a Maricopa County Community College District Board member (2015 to 2019), I was thrilled to see data that showed every year a rise in the number of former English learners attending our community colleges and reaching academic achievement on par with whites.  Similar results occurred in California and Massachusetts where laws similar to ours were implemented.

As a continual stream of Spanish-speakers move to Arizona due to President Biden’s policies, it is likely that Hispanic parents will object again, as they did in the 1990s, to their children not learning enough English in school to be successful, as occurred with Flores et al. vs. the State of Arizona et al.  The U.S. Supreme Court in 2009, the Tucson district court in 2013, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2015 all ruled in favor of the state – after 23 years of litigation that cost hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.  They cited the Proposition 203 immersion law as the main reason Arizona was FINALLY doing a good job of educating English learners!

Contact your legislators and Governor Ducey to stop SCR1020 and HCR2005.

Johanna J. Haver is a former Maricopa County Community College Board member (2015 to 2019). She is the author of Vindicated: Closing the Hispanic Achievement Gap Through English Immersion (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018). She taught English learners for 19 years in the Avondale public schools and in the Phoenix Union High School District.