Bilingual waivers restricted
State schools chief tightens criteria under Prop. 203
By Jennifer Sterba, Jonathan Higuera and
ARIZONA DAILY STAR
PHOENIX - State schools chief Tom Horne said Thursday that he'll crack down on
"abuses" he says have allowed too many students into bilingual rather than
Horne issued new guidelines that come from his strict interpretation of
Proposition 203, the law approved by voters in 2000 that requires English-only
learning in schools.
Starting in August, his rules will restrict the number of waivers that parents
can receive to exempt their children from English-only classes and allow them to
attend bilingual classes.
The new guidelines are supported by Superintendent Stan Paz of Tucson Unified
School District, the city's largest district.
"With those changes, we believe the abuses that have occurred will end and the
intent of the initiative will be accomplished, which is that children will learn
English as quickly as possible and then they will excel
academically," said Horne, a Republican elected in November.
Those who supported Prop. 203 applaud the new guidelines.
"We are looking forward to English immersion for our Mexican-American students
in our schools," said Maria Mendoza, who spearheaded the Prop. 203 petition
drive. "Finally these children will have the equal opportunity to be
academically successful. The key to success is to be fluent in English."
Opponents see it as an attempt to do away with waivers, something voters
approved in 2000. The voter-approved law spelled out several circumstances under
which schools could grant waivers.
"When laws are passed that do not reflect social reality, it's difficult to
enforce them properly," said Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, a lecturer in the
Mexican-American studies department at the University of Arizona, and community
activist. "The waiver is the one safety valve to help a very bad situation.
Anything that makes it more difficult to get a waiver is problematic."
Horne will put on seminars in the spring to show districts the "best practices"
for teaching English learners. Adopting the programs is not mandatory.
Prop. 203 demands English immersion for students with little or no understanding
of the language. Waivers that allow bilingual education are granted based on a
child's special needs and by showing a student has "good English skills,"
according to the law.
However, supporters of Prop. 203 say districts have been abusing the waiver
"I think the plan is exactly what we need because there are too many loopholes
in bilingual education," said Hector Ayala, co-director of English for Children,
which helped get Prop. 203 passed in fall 2000. "The waivers were very easy to
Ayala teaches English at Cholla High School in TUSD, Tucson's largest school
district with more than 60,000 students.
TUSD granted 5,835 waivers this year - 2,000-plus more than it approved last
year for parents wanting their children to take bilingual classes.
Denying only 279 requests for waivers, TUSD approved 95.4 percent of this year's
TUSD curriculum specialist Salvador Gabaldon credited this year's boom in
waivers to increased public awareness.
"Parent groups made sure information about waivers was put out on Spanish
radio," he said. Last year, "a lot of people thought bilingual education had
been wiped out."
Sunnyside Unified School District, which serves about 15,000 students
predominantly on the city's South Side, approved 1,834 waivers last year out of
5,890 English learners identified by the district. The district granted about
1,500 waivers this year out of 2,000 requests, said Jeannie Favela, director of
Sunnyside's language acquisition and development.
"If we were abusing the system, we would be able to grant every single waiver
that came down the pike," she said.
Horne refused to single out any district for abusing the waivers. The most
common waiver granted by districts is the one that allows students with some
English knowledge to sit in bilingual classes.
"Limited English language skills is not good English language skills no matter
what language you read that in or translate it to," Horne said.
Marty Cortez, president of the Tucson Hispanic Coalition, which represents 19
Hispanic and Hispanic-serving groups, said, "It's a move to doing away with
waivers, period. The law says and it stipulates on what grounds the student can
get a waiver. If they are going to change the standards, essentially they want
to change law."
Favela agreed, saying changing the law would affect mostly children under the
age of 10. She said Sunnyside turned down about 250 requests for waivers for
children under the age of 10 this year. If they can't speak a word of English,
they don't qualify under Proposition 203 for bilingual classes.
"If you're thrust in it (English immersion classes) and you don't have any
support, are you going to pass that AIMS test?" Favela asked. "I don't think so
… We might be exposing kids to superficial English and not giving kids the
opportunity to develop proficiency that's ultimately going to help them."
Fabiola Reyes, a 12-year-old seventh-grader at Hohokam Middle School, said she
wouldn't be able to keep up in class if she couldn't take her bilingual Spanish
class. There, she and about 20 students learn how to translate Spanish to
"I speak both," she said. "The most, I know how to speak Spanish."
"I wouldn't understand some of the words," Fabiola said. "I don't know how to
speak formal English."
Her mother, Maria Reyes, said not being able to take a bilingual class would be
like her daughter losing a part of her culture.
Other parents are more supportive of Horne's efforts.
"If they're going to school here, I feel they shouldn't get waivers," said
Theresa Gutierrez, a parent at Sahuaro High School. "I think they should learn
to speak English so they can be taught in this country."
Gutierrez said while she is Hispanic, she is not bilingual.
The other two waivers are less common but there will be changes to obtain those,
also. Some districts use a "cookie cutter" format, Horne said.
"These waivers cannot be mass produced or duplicated," he said. "There must be
documentation that there has been a determination of the specific needs of an
TUSD associate superintendent Becky Montaño said the district was already doing
individual evaluations, as required by law.
"We've been doing that for years," Favela said of Sunnyside.
Speaking in front of an English learners class at Andalucia Middle School in
Phoenix, Horne said districts that do not comply with the guidelines face severe
penalties, including a possible loss of accreditation and funding.
Montaño said they will have to examine Horne's proposed guidelines closely to
see what the district will need to specifically change for next semester.
Horne said he is not trying to eliminate all bilingual programs.
"Once you demonstrate true proficiency, then we have no problem with a quality
dual-language program because then a student is functioning in English and it's
like academically learning another language," he said.
* Contact reporter Jennifer Sterba at 573-4191 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Should the state restrict the ability of parents to put their children in
* Should schools be limited in the number of waivers they grant to students?