Bilingual-ed rules still unclear
The Arizona Republic
Jul. 27, 2003
Pat Kossan
State attorney general's opinion challenges Horne's guidelines


Arizona law requires kids not yet fluent in English to attend all-day English-immersion classes and prohibits Spanish textbooks and teaching in Spanish.

But it's a vague law, filled with exceptions and interpreted differently from school to school.

Now, a state attorney general's opinion has plunged the controversial law deeper into turmoil, leaving parents and teachers where they have been since voters approved the measure in 2000: confused.

Arizona schools chief Tom Horne tried to clean up the confusion with tough new guidelines set several months ago.

One of Horne's guidelines ran into trouble. A state legal opinion, issued last week, says it is up to the state Board of Education to set English fluency standards for students, which must be based on state, rather than national, test scores.

Horne had issued the new guidelines, he said, to close loopholes and shut down many illegal bilingual programs.

The law allows kids with "good English language skills" or kids with "special needs" to skip English-immersion classes and continue to learn in Spanish if a parent signs a waiver.

Here's the latest sticking point: what, exactly, is good English?

Horne sharply raised the grade students must earn on national English fluency tests before parents can sign waivers. He said he based the grade on national averages earned by native English speakers, not a state average based on a large and random sampling of Arizona students.

"What is clear (in the law) is that it must be a state average," said Susan Segal, the state attorney general's chief counsel for education. "That will be the measuring stick."

Also, how to determine what is an acceptable fluency level in Arizona should be left to the Arizona State Board of Education members, not the superintendent of schools, Segal said.

Board Vice President Nadine Basha said members will meet with the Attorney General's Office to understand what is expected of them.

In the meantime, things appear at a standoff.

"I don't thing that Tom Horne can move forward with his English-immersion guidelines," said state Sen. Pete Rios, a Hayden Democrat who requested the opinion at the urging of a loud and active group whose members resent the English-only classroom dictate.

But Horne is undaunted, claiming state averages would be no different from national averages.

"We're a thousand miles away from having a problem," said Horne, who announced Tuesday that the attorney general's opinion "vindicated" his hard line against Spanish in the classroom and even warned schools still conducting bilingual programs to fall in line. "They have between now and the opening day of school, no exceptions."

But the opinion puts the law back into limbo, and schools continue to interpret the law in different ways:


In the Avondale Elementary School District, 658 children will continue to learn in bilingual classes this year.

The district doesn't use many waivers based on "good English skills" but relies on the law's "special needs" clause to get parent waivers. Some schools interpret "special needs" as children with severe learning problems, but Avondale said it includes language needs.


Phoenix's Issac Elementary District will continue to interpret "good English language skills" at a lower level than Horne, hoping the Board of Education will create an Arizona English language standard.

The district's English-immersion classes allow Spanish-speaking teachers to clarify math and history and other learning concepts for children who can't yet comprehend them in English.

"I think it's criminal to put a kid in a class and leave them totally disconnected to words flying around the room," Issac Superintendent Kent Paredes Scribner said.


This year, struggling to obey the law, the Phoenix Elementary District changed Garfield Elementary from a bilingual to an English-immersion school. But Garfield Principal Teresa Covarrubias said it's a law that has festered into a civil rights issue for many, who claim children are falling behind in other subjects while confined to English-immersion classes.


East Phoenix's William T. Machan School is following Horne's guidelines, and this year the number of first-graders participating in its bilingual program dropped from 95 percent to 20 percent. Younger students who can't reach Horne's higher fluency grade were sent to English-immersion programs. Mother Susan Kovarik said her daughter is upset over losing her classmates. "And the kids sent into English-only classrooms feel as if they failed at something."



Reach the reporter at pat.kossan@arizonarepublic.com.