Despite the Supreme Court's desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education, public schools are as segregated as ever.

In the famous 1954 case, the court ruled that separate educational systems--in this case, for African Americans and Anglos--were inherently unequal and, therefore, unconstitutional. The court ordered schools to desegregate with "all deliberate speed."

But the federal government never actually desegregated most of them. Instead, it required schools to allow all comers in the door and, in some instances, to institute a plan that would create more diversity.

Phoenix Union High School, Roosevelt Elementary and Tempe Elementary School districts operate under court-approved desegregation plans, mostly through magnet-school programs. But in Arizona and across much of the nation, schools are still unequal and largely segregated.

In July, the state Supreme Court ruled that Arizona's school funding was inequitable and, therefore, unconstitutional. Nearly all of the schools on the short end of the funding stick have high minority populations. More than half of the nation's "minority" children go to schools where they are, in fact, in the majority, according to a December Harvard study. And for Hispanic children, the numbers are even higher. Nearly three-fourths of Hispanic children go to predominantly minority schools.

Hispanics compose more than 90 percent of the student population at 35 schools in Arizona. In most cases, the segregation is a result of housing patterns, specifically, concentrations of low-income housing. The U.S. Supreme Court, in recent years, anyway, has allowed this de facto segregation, so long as schools were not designed to serve one race exclusively.

But Hispanic school activists say the public schools have not adapted, in any effective way, to the changing demographics that have created schools overwhelmingly populated by minorities.

Bilingual education is nearly nonexistent in Arizona public schools, even though more than 62,000 children in public school speak little or no English.

Despite a growing international economy and a changing population, the ability to speak Spanish is looked upon less as an asset than as a problem in many schools.

The state allows school districts to provide a number of different types of instruction to children who speak little or no English.

Among the most successful is a fully bilingual program in which children learn their lessons--math, history, social studies and so forth--in the language they understand best, while they also learn to speak English.

Only seven of the state's 220 school districts offer fully bilingual programs. Instead, pointing to funding and staffing problems, most districts offer some amount of instruction in English as a Second Language. Usually, those classes last just a few hours per day.

Bilingual programs are controversial, at least in Arizona, because in them children continue to speak and learn in Spanish for several years. Critics prefer that children use only English, at least at school, and argue that they will assimilate to American education faster that way. But students with limited English skills typically spend most of their school days in classrooms where they don't understand most of what their teachers or their classmates are saying--or what is in their textbooks.

They are pulled out for an hour or two a day to a separate classroom for English instruction, until they either catch on or drop out. Experts estimate that it takes six to eight years to become fluent enough to learn in a second language.

"It [language] is the only area of education where we routinely expect our children to outperform their teachers," says Jim Lyons, executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education. "All that they know and can say, the schools can't understand." Despite a great need for teachers fluent in both Spanish and English, only 3 percent of the state's 35,000 teachers hold bilingual teaching certificates. Another 3 percent have an English-as-a-Second-Language endorsement, which requires less training in the language and culture of students. Still another 3 percent have a provisional certificate in one or the other, meaning that they haven't completed their course work.

Meanwhile, the largest number of teachers instructing students with limited English skills--about 5 percent of all teachers--has no certification at all, even though state law requires it.

Problems start at the schoolhouse door for children lacking a solid grasp of English.

State law requires that schools assess these children to determine their language skills and place them in appropriate programs. But during the 1992-1993 school year, more than 6,000 schoolchildren were not assessed or were assessed improperly, according to the Arizona Department of Education.

Language programs required by law were not provided to more than 8,000 children who were identified as needing them. And of the 182 school districts that reported teaching these children, more than 20 percent did not monitor their progress. About 5,000 children who speak little or no English were given state achievement tests in Arizona last spring. Nearly half of them were given the test in English. As a result of improper assessment, nonexistent programs, insufficient teaching staff and inappropriate testing, children whose only problem is a lack of English skills are held back, placed in special education or remedial classes and labeled "at risk"--until, all too often, they finally give up and leave school.

Proponents think charter schools can change that pattern of cultural neglect and educational failure, but the charter-schools debate is not just about culture, or even quality of education. The debate is thoroughly intertwined with ethnic politics.

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