Bilingual Blues

This is not the way your grandfather learned English

"My feeling is they're dead wrong," echoes Al Flores, the Phoenix attorney who won a federal desegregation suit against Phoenix Union High School District. "Let's face it: we border on a country that speaks Spanish."

Ayala, on the other hand, feels that learning English is not a cultural threat.

"They feel there's an enormous cultural issue attached to that, and I don't know why people can't seem to separate the two issues, the culture issue and the learning of English issue. They feel it's an oppression of the Mexicans. That has very little to do with what we are doing."

"Do you think you have to teach them how to be Mexicans?" Mendoza adds.
California millionaire Ron Unz made a crusade of his California referendum, bankrolling it with his own money. He did not go looking for Arizonans to carry on the campaign, Mendoza and Ayala insist. They contacted him for advice. To date, Unz has only provided them with office equipment and space on his Web site, they say.

What they want instead of bilingual education or extended ESL is a one-year, sheltered immersion program, which essentially means taking the newcomers and segregating them in intensive language class for one year and then letting them sink or swim from there.

"To imagine that a child cannot be taught entirely in English because he hasn't achieved a certain level of academic English is silly," Ayala says. "They don't develop academic English in a vacuum, they develop it by doing academics in English. And what is the level of academics they were doing in first and second grade anyway?"

The bilingual educators, Ayala and Mendoza contend, have built themselves an empire that they guard jealously, keeping jobs despite their inability to educate bilingual children. In fact, the bilingual director of Tucson schools did not want Ayala to be photographed in his classroom but had no objections to photographing bilingual teachers in theirs.

If English for the Children's initiative hit Arizona polling places tomorrow, it would probably win as resoundingly as it did in California. But those voting for it would be strange bedfellows: antibilingual Hispanics, and political moderates frustrated with public education in general who would vote alongside right-wing racists and xenophobes. Hispanics as a group don't vote in large numbers, and many cannot because they are not citizens. In other words, the audience and advocates for bilingual education may not even go to the polls.

"A lot of my colleagues think it's very politically sound, says Lisa Keegan, "that it's a smart idea. Is it a good idea? Noooooo!"

Keegan says that Ron Unz frequently sends her faxes to convince her of his way of thinking.

"He keeps saying, 'Lisa, you'll get re-elected,' and I say, 'Ron, I don't care.'"

In federal court in Tucson, in Judge Alfredo Marquez's courtroom, there is a wild card that may trump English for the Children and Representative Knaperek's bill.

In 1992, an attorney named Bill Morris filed a class action suit on behalf of children in the Nogales Unified School District, charging that the state had not met its state or federal obligation to see that Spanish-speaking children were given the instruction they were entitled to, therefore violating their civil rights.

There were not enough programs, not enough teachers, not enough resources. And in 1993, the federal Office of Civil Rights agreed. That agency's investigation "concluded that the District discriminates against national-origin minority children on the basis of their limited English proficiency by not providing them services necessary for them to participate meaningfully in the District's educational program . . ."

Morris doesn't know how many LEP students are in a bona fide program that can satisfy state and federal law. "I can't put an exact percentage on it, but I'm satisfied that it's substantially less than 50 percent."

After years of back and forth with the state, Morris filed three motions for summary judgment nearly a year ago. Two cover the state's compliance with the Supreme Court's Lau decision; the third seeks to exempt LEP students from the AIMS test. Marquez could issue a decision any day.

If he rules in favor of the plaintiffs, it would negate the English for the Children initiative--as in a game of paper-scissors-rock, federal court ruling takes state initiative, Morris believes.

"That argument is being presented to the California courts right now," he says.

And federal court ruling takes state law as well. Joe Eddie Lopez consulted with Morris while crafting his bill to make sure it would withstand a possible federal challenge. Knaperek's bill would not, Morris insists.

"It's not a question of whether bilingual education is good or bad in the abstract," Morris says, "It's 'Did your children receive any instruction due him or her or them under federal law?' As long as the answer is no, because the state never made it possible, this becomes a truly sterile debate."

In essence, the suit says to the state of Arizona: How would you know whether bilingual education works? You have never done it.

Lisa Keegan wouldn't comment on the pending case.

Judges and legislators can deal in abstracts; teachers face classrooms.
"Our district has 25 different languages," says Michael Rivera, principal at Andalucia Middle School on the west side of Phoenix.

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