Arizona Legislature Eases Restrictive Four-Hour English Law in Historic Reform

Senator Paul Boyer, center, alongside Senator Sylvia Allen, the chair of the Education Committee. Boyer sponsored a measure to reform Arizona's restrictive English-only immersion law.
Senator Paul Boyer, center, alongside Senator Sylvia Allen, the chair of the Education Committee. Boyer sponsored a measure to reform Arizona's restrictive English-only immersion law. Joseph Flaherty
Update, February 14, 10:43 a.m.

Governor Doug Ducey signed a bill on Thursday easing a prohibitive Arizona law requiring a four-hour daily block of English instruction for non-native speakers in K-12 schools, capping off years of advocacy from educators who said the system was failing students.

“School principals and teachers know what it takes for their students to succeed,” Ducey said in a statement. “This bill provides educators the flexibility they need to ensure the highest quality language, literacy and academic outcomes for their students."

Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, who supported changes to the ELL framework during her campaign, applauded the governor, lawmakers, and advocates who fought for the change.

“For the past two decades, Arizona’s English language learner students have suffered from a misguided policy that left them isolated, undereducated, and unprepared to enter the workforce,” Hoffman said in the same press release. “The passage of this legislation will give tens of thousands of ELL students a greater chance at success in school and in life, and their success will benefit all Arizonans."

Original story continues below:

In a victory for advocates of reform, Arizona Legislature passed a bill on Monday reducing the state's restrictive four-hour English immersion mandate for language learners in K-12 schools.

Educators and school officials have pushed lawmakers for years to revise the mandate, which requires English-learning students to take four hours of English immersion each day. They say the law segregates a population of mostly Latino students from their native-speaking peers and contributes to Arizona's dismal graduation rate for English-language learners.

In a sign of the widespread support behind rolling back the English-immersion law, the Arizona House unanimously approved SB 1014 on Monday, one week after the Senate also gave unanimous approval. The bill was sponsored by Republican Senator Paul Boyer of Phoenix.

The history of the controversial four-hour mandate can be traced back to Proposition 203, a ballot initiative Arizona voters approved in 2000 that required school districts to develop English-language immersion programs for non-native speakers during their first year, and prohibited instruction in any language besides English.

In the aftermath of the decision in Prop 203, legislators developed the four-hour mandate, which has been in place since the 2008-09 school year, according to researchers at the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

Now, students who are not proficient in English are placed into an ELL cohort and separated from their peers for much of the day. For at least four hours, they study English vocabulary and grammar to prepare for an exam that will assess their language abilities. When they ace that exam, they can exit English immersion.

Boyer's bill reduces the four-hour daily mandate to just two hours of English immersion per day, 10 hours per week, or 360 hours per year for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Starting in sixth grade, students will see their English-immersion requirement reduced to under two hours per day, eight hours per week, or 300 hours per year.

Additionally, the bill allows school districts and charter schools to adopt other research-based models of English instruction as long as they receive the approval of the State Board of Education.

Researchers and advocates say the four-hour English mandate forces students to miss out on relevant subject matter in other fields like math, science, and history. As a result, students struggle to meet credit requirements. Often, they say, students linger in the ELL group for years when they should be quickly transitioning to the cohort of native-speaking students, contributing to the low graduation rate among ELL students.

As a state representative last year, Boyer sponsored a version of the legislation. Despite wide support in the House, Boyer's bill died in the Senate because the Senate President at the time, Steve Yarbrough, declined to schedule it for a vote.

Shortly after the House passed the bill on Monday, Boyer said he's grateful for the support.

"The unanimous vote count in the Senate and the House reflects the feedback I've heard from those in the field who are responsible for teaching English to these students," he wrote in an email. "If this bill is signed into law, we can now go back to trusting the professionals in the field on how best to make sure these students are proficient in English. Whoever said the legislature couldn't get along should take a close look at this bill."

The measure now goes to the desk of Governor Doug Ducey.

Boyer has not spoken to Ducey or his staff this year, he said, but when he discussed the bill with Ducey's staff last year, they didn't raise any major concerns.
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Joseph Flaherty is a staff writer at New Times. Originally from Wisconsin, he is a graduate of Middlebury College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Contact: Joseph Flaherty