This issue may decide if Arizona will prosper
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 5, 2006

Richard DeUriarte


We call them "English-language learners." But the issue goes much deeper than learning English. It's about 175,000 at-risk Arizona students succeeding academically. Getting through high school in greater numbers, attending college, advancing in a competitive and technological economy.

Most people attending the Arizona Conversations conference last week agreed on that at least, even if they disagreed sharply on other issues of pedagogy and politics. "This is about the future, these kids are here. They are not going anywhere, and they will be our future," commented a Laveen school administrator.

"If only for our own economic self-interest, the viability of our economy, of our pension systems, it all depends on an educated work force," observed Roberto Reveles, a retired congressional aide and lobbyist, now an administrator with a Latino social policy organization.

Unfortunately, the controversy over English-learners is inextricably tied to the polarizing issue of immigration. Solutions that might work in the classroom are bogged down in polemics, in the frustration and anger so many Americans feel about these "strangers" living and working among us.

"Why is the government . . . aiding and abetting those who ignore our laws and enter our country illegally?" writes a Glendale reader. "Why is it the taxpayers who have to provide education and health care to them?"

A Yuma resident asks bluntly: "Why is teaching English even an issue in the United States of America?"

And another from a fuming west Phoenix man: "It makes me sick that some activist judges are shaking down Arizona for $1 million a day to help people who do not want to learn English," he writes, referring to Flores vs. Arizona, the class-action lawsuit that is forcing Arizona to reform how it handles students who are learning English as a second language.

Those irate readers might soften their views if they met Miriam Flores, the 19-year-old Nogales resident and University of Arizona nursing student whose name appears on the lawsuit filed back in 1992 by the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest.

Hers is a pretty, sweet-natured face. An intelligent face. But most importantly: the face of Arizona's future, brimming with confidence and potential. But it was not that long ago that Miriam struggled in school, when classes conducted in English were overwhelming for her.

She persevered.

But how do we make Miriam's success story more commonplace for the estimated 175,000 English-learners now enrolled in the state's public schools? Because, right now, they are struggling, lagging behind other students in practically every academic measure.

The answers affect all Arizona, more so with each passing year. Here's why:

  Already they make up about 20 percent of the state's public school enrollment.

 The Morrison Institute at Arizona State University has suggested that by 2020, Hispanics will make up half of the homegrown entry-level labor force. In its classic 2001 report, "Five Shoes Waiting to Drop on Arizona's Future," Morrison Institute researchers laid out the state's critical challenge: "Today's young Latinos will be entering their prime working years just when experienced employees will be needed to help replace the baby boomers. . . . Many of Arizona's Latinos remain ill-prepared to prosper in an intellectually demanding knowledge economy."

 In late 2003, a Brookings Institute analysis of the U.S. Census issued a clear warning to Phoenix. It said that educational trends point to the emergence of "two economies" here: a high-skill, high-wage sector of predominantly Anglos and Asians, and a low-wage sector composed primarily of Latinos.

The fear: A large, resentful underclass of mostly Latino workers who for reasons of education and status, can't share in the American dream, even though they work in increasing numbers.

The issue of monolingual Spanish-speakers entering school is not particularly new in the Southwest. What's different, complicated, even overwhelming, is the sheer numbers. It's easier to acquire a new language if you are one of three learners in a class made up of mostly native English speakers. The non-English will be exposed to more English words and gradually catch on. But if 20 of 30 students in a class don't speak English, it's a lot harder.

According to C. Ray Graham, a linguistic professor at Brigham Young University, students learn a new language more quickly the more they hear and process that language in their minds.

Chris Jepsen, a researcher for the Public Policy Institute of California, agrees that exposure to English is critical, which is why the sheer volume of English-learners, primarily native Spanish speakers, complicates the challenge for teachers, parents and students. What is the language of the playground?

All this seems to reinforce the arguments supporting so-called English-immersion instruction, which is now mandatory in Arizona since the passage of the English-only Proposition 203 in 2000. Margaret Garcia Dugan, deputy state superintendent of public instruction, is the most prominent English-only advocate. She considers bilingual instruction a "slap in the face" to Latino kids. They should not be segregated or relegated to less challenging subjects. "Don't think of these kids as unable to learn," she says.

Yet the scholars raise an important caveat. Even if students pick up a language relatively quickly, it doesn't mean they can handle complicated subjects in their new language.

"Fluency does not equal academic competency," Graham insists. "Language is not the issue. Intellectual development is the issue," he says.

That means more money, more qualified teachers, smaller classes, more instructional tools, greater monitoring of students' performance and progress, even after they have gained "proficiency" in English and especially if they lag behind.

It means teachers, school officials and elected officials have to rely on instinct, tradition and their personal preferences and pay attention to research. They must follow the policy implications of reliable (and relevant) data. If the data say immersion techniques are useful for three years, you can't stop funding them after two.

There is good news.

Some school districts have shown some progress. The greater emphasis on English-learners, either because of Proposition 203 or the Flores decision, schools are under pressure to produce more prepared graduates.

Happily, several inter-generational studies do show significant progress among Latinos from one generation to the other. The fear of a permanent underclass among Latinos might be overstated, although some studies suggest income growth has been slower for Latinos than for other ethnic groups.

One fact seems pretty clear. The immigrants are part of our future. Under no conceivable change in immigration laws or enforcement can we expect these students to leave Arizona. In fact, the federal government has not been able to stem the tide of new arrivals entering the United States despite far greater border enforcement and tens of millions of new dollars.

Most of them are U.S. born. They're citizens. In the Isaac Elementary School District in west Phoenix, for example, 94 percent of the student body is Hispanic and 55 percent English-learners. Of the students from kindergarten to the fifth grade, 83 percent of them are U.S. citizens. They're here. Their destiny is our destiny.

Richard de Uriarte is an editorial writer.