Schools seek clarification on impact of Prop. 200
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 26, 2004

Mel MelÚndez and Yvonne Wingett

Parents, teachers and school administrators throughout Arizona are scrambling to make sense of Proposition 200, tying up phone lines and shooting off e-mails on the confusing immigration initiative that's poised to become law.

One Phoenix school board member is pushing for a resolution to protect staff from criminal punishment. Educators and parents, meanwhile, fear that state-funded programs are in jeopardy and that participation in parent training classes and other services will plummet if teachers must check citizenship.

The problem: Three weeks after voters approved the immigration measure known as Protect Arizona Now on Nov. 2, no one can agree on what it means to students, parents and teachers. As more Valley schools become social-service hubs for immigrant families seeking health care, food and clothes, administrators fear they could land in litigation by providing services or referrals to state agencies.

They also fear falling enrollment in English-as-a-second-language classes and other parent programs. The training is critical to the success of many American-born Latino students, who in Arizona drop out nearly twice as often as the national student population, teachers contend.

'A lot of confusion'

"People are fearful because there's a lot of confusion surrounding this law," said Ernesto Ugarte, a Mexican immigrant whose two sons attend Mesa's Madison Elementary School. "A lot of parents take night courses and are active in schools, and they're really worried about what this is going to mean."

Monday's certification of the statewide vote allows the governor to proclaim Proposition 200 law, barring imminent legal challenges.

Voters approved the measure under a cloud of controversy and last-minute court battles. It requires proof of citizenship when registering to vote and applying for welfare benefits and makes it a crime to provide those benefits to the undocumented.

Attorney General Terry Goddard has indicated the immigration measure will not apply to K-12 schools, emergency medical care or other federally mandated programs. Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne agrees. But fear continues to ripple across the Valley.

"Everybody in the (immigrant) community is very worried because there's so much confusion about what this will mean. The fear of deportation is very real," said Ernesto Urgarte, who recently stopped attending his GED classes.

Local educators depend on the adult classes and services to boost graduation rates, student AIMS (Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards) scores and college enrollment. Parents rely on them to build language skills, increase involvement in their children's education and gain confidence to run routine errands, as simple as trips to the grocery store and bank.

"We are concerned that fewer parents will participate (in schools) because studies show that this type of training has a direct impact on how kids learn," said Terry Locke, a spokesman for the Chandler Unified School District. "That would be a detriment to this group of students."

Treasured classes

In Mesa, some Venezuelan, Mexican and Salvadoran immigrants hope Proposition 200 won't cost them their treasured classes. They huddle daily with English instructors in an Edison Elementary School classroom for at least 12 hours weekly.

There, among grammar books, pronunciation guides and picture dictionaries, they and 1,000 adults throughout the district learn vocabulary words, study verb tenses and diagram sentences.

For custodian Rosa L. Salas, the free classes eventually will lead to meaningful conversations in English with her children. The native of Juarez, Mexico, two year's ago couldn't help 11-year-old daughter Jannett with homework.

Now, "I can understand. I can read. I can help my family," the 48-year-old said.

School officials question if the measure will jeopardize the program because it is partly state-funded.

Randy Pullen, chairman of the Yes on 200 committee, has said the measure, "even under the broadest interpretation," wouldn't disrupt the social services or adult classes: "This is part of the hysteria," he said. But last week, he asked a judge to expand the initiative's scope, heightening doubts among parents and school officials who wait in standby mode.

Seeking direction

More than a dozen of the state's 236 school districts have contacted the Arizona School Boards Association seeking direction, Executive Director Panfilo Contreras said. The group is preparing a Proposition 200 advisory for school districts.

Newsletters, fliers and school memos attempt to clarify the measure and calm fears of litigation and deportation.

Several Valley districts, including Phoenix Union and Mesa Public Schools, have sent notices to employees stating "it's business as usual."

Mesa's memo to school principals said school officials "are not obligated to comply with the requirements of Proposition 200."

Phoenix Union's letter to employees stated, "Public schools will not turn over to immigration authorities students who are living in Arizona illegally."

Still, Phoenix Union governing board member Gary Peter Klahr wants a resolution similar to Phoenix's recently passed ordinance insulating employees from civil and criminal liability under the measure.

"This is not an effort to defy the will of the people, since Proposition 200 applies only to voting and welfare benefits," he said. "But with some elements claiming the proposition goes way beyond its original intent, I see this as an insurance policy for our employees."