Throwing the baby out with the bath water

Proposition 203, a referendum item intended to close bilingual education programs in Arizona schools, should be defeated. Like all programs funded by the taxpayers, bilingual education programs must be held accountable for outcomes. In this case, programs that do not prepare students to function with equal ease in their native language and in English should be reformed or even shut down. But Prop. 203 is not designed to introduce stronger accountability in existing programs. Rather, if approved by Arizona voters, this proposition will have the unintended consequence of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Arizonans do not need Prop. 203. Parents already have the right not to enroll their children in bilingual education programs and to pursue other paths to English proficiency if they so desire. More importantly, the educational approach favored by advocates of “English only” will not work for the great majority of Arizona K-12 students who are designated as “limited English proficient (LEP).” Our very diverse society requires the use of several approaches, of which language immersion is only one.

Immersion programs of relatively brief duration can work well for students who are already grounded in the structure, syntax, and grammar of their native language. This foundation of skills and knowledge—basically, solid literacy in one language—is easily applied to the acquisition of other languages. However, most LEP students in our K-12 schools do not have that grounding. In most cases they need to master the structure, syntax, and grammar of their native language while at the same time acquiring a second language. This is a vastly more difficult task than simply building foreign language proficiency from a solid foundation of literacy in one’s native language. In many cases the task will involve unlearning and replacing patterns of language use in one’s native language while also learning patterns in English. However imperfectly, bilingual education programs tackle this difficult task. To replace these programs with immersion programs as the only option would be a great disservice to the people of our state.

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