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Proposition 203 victory in Arizona energizes bilingual ed opponents nationally

By Daniel González
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 20, 2000 16:20

Proposition 203's recent landslide victory in Arizona is energizing opponents of bilingual education across the country who predict more states are soon to follow.

"It inspires others to see it can be done and we are not alone," said Rita Montero, a former member of the Denver Board of Education and a fierce opponent of bilingual education.

Coupled with rising test scores in California that bilingual education opponents attribute to a similar anti-bilingual education measure that California voters passed in 1998, Arizona will give efforts to dismantle bilingual education in Colorado a boost, Montero predicted.

In July, the Colorado Supreme Court tossed an anti-bilingual education initiative off the November ballot because it contained unclear and misleading wording. The initiative was similar to the one embraced by 63 percent of Arizona voters on Nov. 7.

Proposition 203 requires public schools in Arizona to end traditional bilingual education in favor of placing immigrant children with limited English skills in an intensive one-year English-immersion program.

A new version of the Colorado ballot initiative is expected to be reintroduced in 2002, Montero said. By then Montero expects to see a rise in test scores in Arizona, further adding momentum to the campaign to ban bilingual education in her state.

But James Crawford, an author who specializes in the politics of language, predicts Proposition 203's victory in Arizona will have minimal impact on bilingual education programs in other parts of the country.

"What happened in Arizona is less likely to make a national impact than what happened in California two years ago because California is seen as a trendsetter," he said. "The only reason there (was) an initiative in Arizona is because Ron Unz put it there. It's still being promoted by a small number of right-wing ideologues. This is not a large popular movement that most people care about."

Unz is the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who bankrolled anti-bilingual education initiatives in both California and Arizona.

Even so, Proposition 203 seems to be resonating with bilingual education opponents in Texas.

"It's going to have a tremendous impact. What it's doing is energizing the people of Texas that this can be done, that we can get rid of bilingual education," said April Horner, who hosts a Spanish-language talk radio program in Dallas.

The day after Proposition 203 won in Arizona, Horner interviewed Maria Mendoza on her show. Mendoza was one of the leaders of English for the Children, the group that led the Arizona campaign.

Horner said the program was flooded by callers agreeing that bilingual education was a failure.

"What I heard from listeners is people want their children to learn English as quickly as possible," Horner said.

Horner, a native of Mexico and a certified bilingual teacher, opposes bilingual education not because she doesn't think children should learn two languages, but because she believes bilingual education fails to adequately teach English to immigrant children.

Unlike Arizona, California and Colorado, Texas does not have a referendum process allowing citizens to place initiatives like Proposition 203 on the ballot.

Until now, Texas has been considered a bilingual education stronghold, but that could change, Horner said. To end or restrict bilingual education in Texas will require a vote by the state's Legislature, something lawmakers there have avoided, Horner said.

"This has been a taboo subject for a very long time in Texas," Horner said. "But after what has happened first in California and then in Arizona, people have been feeling more comfortable talking about it."

Rosalie Porter, an ardent critic of bilingual education in Massachusetts, also kept close tabs on the Arizona's initiative. Porter earned a doctorate in bilingual education and taught bilingual education for years before souring on the method. Still, she said she considers measures like Proposition 203 too extreme.

"I would rather see a modification of the existing state law than a complete overthrow," she said.

Unz, meanwhile, has been crisscrossing the country marshaling forces to mount attacks on bilingual education in other parts of the country, especially in New York City, where bilingual education has increasingly come under fire. At a hearing in New York, however, Unz was reportedly heckled with shouts of "Let him go back to California" and "Go home."

Unz said he hopes the back-to-back votes in California and now Arizona will create a domino effect toppling bilingual education in other bilingual education strongholds such as Illinois and Massachusetts. But ultimately, Unz said he would like to see support for bilingual education cut off at the federal level.

After Proposition 203's victory in Arizona, Unz sent out an e-mail lamenting the lack of politicians willing to back anti-bilingual education measures, and expressing hope that will change.

"Perhaps at some point, some politicians will begin to see the light," Unz wrote.