A struggle in Arizona : That state's version of Amendment 31 hasn't
Denver Rocky Mountain News
Wednesday, October 9, 2002
TUCSON - The lilting sounds of Spanish are diminshed but not gone from
classrooms here, two years after Arizona voters overwhelmingly rejected
At Pueblo Gardens Elementary in an immigrant neighborhood in south central
Tucson, half the parents still sign up their children for bilingual classes
taught in Spanish while they slowly learn English.
At nearby Pueblo Magnet High School, more students than ever before enroll in
Arizona's Proposition 203, the virtual twin of Colorado's proposed Amendment 31,
is still a long way from its supporters' goal of replacing bilingual education
with English immersion.
And largely because of what has happened in Arizona - the second state to vote
to get rid of bilingual education - Colorado's proposed version is stricter.
Supporters of Amendment 31 added a 10-year window for lawsuits against educators
who allow bilingual classes. Parents who receive a waiver to continue bilingual
instruction could sue up to a decade later if they decide that decision harmed
their child. Presumably, Colorado educators fearful of personal liability would
be wary of granting the large number of waivers approved by Tucson's schools.
The tougher language was necessary because Tucson educators "found a loophole I
never even considered," said Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who wrote
the anti-bilingual measures in Arizona and Colorado after getting a similar
proposal passed in California.
Tucson schools are improperly using an oral test of English fluency to allow
waivers, Unz said.
Even with the tougher penalties in Amendment 31, Arizona's experience may
provide Colorado voters with insight into what to expect if the measure passes
Before Arizona changed the law in November 2000, about a third of its 150,000
English language learners were in bilingual classes. (That's comparable with
Colorado's 32 percent; in Denver, it's 42 percent.) This year in Arizona, the
number dropped to 11 percent, or about 16,500 children. More students are in
year-long English immersion classes - particularly outside Tucson, a city where
bilingual education first flourished and was deeply entrenched - than before the
Arizona school districts scrambled to comply with the relatively vague law. In
the 61,000-student Tucson district, for example, that meant retraining nearly
700 bilingual teachers to teach English without using Spanish and setting up
classes at 22 schools to help students who were suddenly facing immersion in the
Tucson's superintendent became the first U.S. school official to be sued for
enforcing an anti-bilingual law, fanning Colorado educators' fears of Amendment
31. The parents of Jasmine Morales, 6, filed a lawsuit after Superintendent
Estanislado Paz refused to grant a waiver placing their daughter in a bilingual
class. The girl was later allowed in a bilingual class and her parents dropped
Controversy lingers on both sides of the issue. Bilingual supporters cried foul
when a Phoenix principal barred teachers from speaking Spanish anywhere at
school, even on the playground. School board members later softened the stance.
Opponents charged that school officials were threatening families with
deportation unless they signed waivers to put their kids in bilingual classes,
although critics were unable to produce names. The extreme reactions show the
emotion that still
surrounds Proposition 203.
Both sides say they're preparing lawsuits.
"We have many, many parents still fighting to get their children out of
bilingual education," said Maria Mendoza, a Tucson schools activist who
co-chaired the Arizona campaign to end bilingual classes. "We are still fighting
to enforce the law."
Meanwhile, educators are entering year two of life under Proposition 203. Its
impact on student achievement, after only a year, remains unclear.
"We're muddling through," said Pueblo Gardens Principal Marco Ramirez. "We're
trying to figure this thing out the best we can."
In the classroom
On a recent sunny morning at Ramirez' school in central Tucson, kindergarten
teacher Cathy DeJonghe silently mimicked eating in front of a little girl who
doesn't speak English.
DeJonghe is bilingual, but she's assigned this year to an English immersion
classroom in which she must curtail her Spanish. So, for the five native Spanish
speakers in her class alongside 17 native English speakers, she carefully dipped
an imaginary spoon into soup and brought it to her mouth.
"Que dientes?" the little girl asked, confused. "What teeth?"
An exasperated DeJonghe has no trouble telling a reporter what she thinks about
"I absolutely hate it," she said.
Down the hall, first-grade teacher Jaye Downing has had success with English
immersion. Downing, who doesn't speak Spanish, worried how she would teach the
handful of native Spanish speakers mixed into her classroom.
"But then I saw the kids; it wasn't going to kill them," she said. "They still
love coming to school. They even try to teach me Spanish."
Even so, one little girl struggled so much that her mother reported she often
threw up before class, Downing said. But Downing was able to teach another girl,
a more outgoing student, to read English in a year.
Still, Downing concedes she finds herself expecting lower achievement from her
native Spanish speakers.
"I hate to say it," she said, "but I have different expectations for my English
Ramirez, the bilingual principal of Pueblo Gardens, worries those children will
"In English immersion, an English language learner will spend the entire year
learning English while the native English speakers will be learning to read," he
said. "By the third grade, that child will have more understanding of English,
yes, but will he be able to understand what he's reading in English?"
More than half the 300 students at Pueblo Gardens come to school with limited
Before Proposition 203, virtually all were taught in bilingual classes, learning
academics in Spanish while slowly learning English. By third grade, English
became the primary language of instruction.
This fall, after Proposition 203, parents of 141 students at Pueblo Gardens have
obtained waivers to keep them in bilingual classes.
Students without waivers are placed in the school's only other option - regular
Ramirez said those are typically the youngest students.
Under Proposition 203, just like Colorado's Amendment 31, waivers to stay in
bilingual classes are allowed for children who already know English, who are
older than 10 or who have special needs. Pueblo Gardens parents snap up the
age-based waivers for students in grade 5. And students in grades 3 and 4 often
are able to demonstrate English knowledge by passing an oral fluency exam - the
one Unz objects to.
That means youngsters in grades K-2 are most likely to be in English immersion
classes, despite their parents' wishes, Ramirez said.
Last year, for example, Pueblo Gardens had two kindergarten classes - a
bilingual kindergarten class of 20 and a traditional classroom of 27 that mixed
native English speakers with native Spanish speakers. At least five of the
the regular class would have chosen bilingual classes if they could, Ramirez
"Prop 203 left a bad taste in our community," he said. "It was approved by
people who are not from here, who are not poor, who are not immigrant, who are
not Hispanic. People who had never walked into our building are now saying how
it should be run."
Some parents at Pueblo Gardens do opt for English immersion.
In Pat Crowell's fifth-grade classroom, four of her 25 students are English
language learners whose parents chose not to sign waivers.
"We have to go a little bit slower," Crowell said.
Adriana Lovio, 10, said she's in the class "because my mom wants me to know more
"I have to talk in Spanish in my house, with my grandma and my dad," she said.
"But my mom wants me to be bilingual. I do, too, because I want to be a
Unz said mixing native Spanish speakers in a regular English classroom isn't
what Proposition 203 intends for the first year of "immersion," which is
supposed to provide intensive instruction in English. But if the regular
instruction is in English and teachers have some training in teaching English
language learners, "it probably would be all right," he said.
Unz is more concerned about students remaining in bilingual classes.
At nearby Pueblo High school, where students easily obtain waivers by age, the
number of students enrolled in bilingual classes actually increased after
Proposition 203. Only 35 of the school's 650 English language learners are in
"I have yet to see a parent offered a waiver say no," said Paula Cortes, the
school's bilingual director. "I think the families here value Spanish very
Suing the super
Just an hour's drive up Interstate 19 from the Mexican border, Tucson is the
focus of the bilingual debate.
A fifth of the district's students, or 10,500, are English language learners.
When Proposition 203 passed, roughly half were in bilingual classes.
This fall, roughly the same number have obtained waivers and are still learning
in Spanish and English. That waiver rate is far above the state average.
In Phoenix Elementary District, for example, only two of 15 schools still offer
bilingual classes, said Teresa Covarrubias, director of instructional delivery.
Unz and Mendoza claim Tucson officials are violating Proposition 203 by
deliberately misinterpreting its criteria for waivers. By far, the district's
common waiver is that given for children who already know English.
Proposition 203 - and Colorado's Amendment 31 - state that the waiver is for
children whose English skills "as measured by oral evaluation or standardized
tests" are "approximately at or above the state average for his grade level."
Tucson students receive the waiver if they score a 3 out of 5 points on
CTB/McGraw-Hill's Language Assessment Scales, or LAS, an oral English exam for
which there is no state average or grade level equivalent. Test materials say a
equals "a working knowledge of English."
But Unz said the oral exam score does not equate to the level of English he
intended for waivers. He said Tucson officials are deliberately ignoring the
language referring to "grade level" English.
"If we can find some parents willing to file a lawsuit, we'll do that," Unz
But Rebecca Montaņo, Tucson's associate superintendent, said the district's
lawyers went "line by line" through Proposition 203 to ensure it is being
"I think we're very careful," she said.
To date, one lawsuit has been filed against an educator in Arizona or California
over an Unz measure. Ironically, it accused a Tucson educator not of granting a
waiver too freely but of refusing to give one.
Oscar and Lizabeth Morales of Tucson sued on behalf of their daughter, Jasmine,
December 2001. They said Jasmine, who had been in a bilingual kindergarten
was faltering in her English immersion first-grade class.
"She didn't want to go to school," Lizabeth Morales said in Spanish. "I'd wake
up and she would be crying; I would change her and she would be crying; I left
at school and she would be crying; when I picked her up, she'd be crying."
Jasmine did not qualify for waivers by age or English fluency and was turned
for the rarely-granted waiver for special physical or psychological needs.
So the Moraleses, with help from the William E. Morris Institute for Justice,
to court alleging their daughter's rights under the Equal Education Opportunity
Act were being violated. They also claimed there was no procedure for
Within a week, Superintendent Paz, citing "additional information," changed his
The lawsuit was dropped and the legal issues never addressed. Attorney Tom
Berning, with the Institute for Justice, said he is looking for another family
willing to be part of a lawsuit to settle them.
And as Arizona continues to work through the changes imposed by Prop 203,
is moving ahead with her education.
Jasmine's mother said she is getting extra help and doing well in her bilingual
"She didn't understand a lot of things in English, so she didn't progress,"
Lizabeth Morales said in a recent interview. "Right now they're giving her
instruction because she fell behind about six months and because she didn't
understand anything, anything."
Staff writer Hector Gutierrez contributed to this report. mitchelln@com