Lawmakers in Arizona will try again this year to repeal a 20-year-old law requiring English learners to be separated during the school day for explicit English language instruction — a model many say has left them trailing their peers in core subject areas.
Arizona is also the only state in the country with such a law still on the books.
In the meantime, state education officials are doing what they can to give schools more control over instruction for ELs — flexibility that includes allowing them more chances to participate in the state's growing number of dual-language immersion programs.
On Monday, the Arizona State Board of Education approved a plan allowing schools to choose from one of four models to meet students' needs and potentially give them more time in mainstream classrooms. The new guidelines follow the passage of legislation last year halving the original four-hour block of structured English immersion for ELs required by Proposition 203.
In general, the law “hasn’t stopped the creativity and the innovation of Arizona educators,” said Tammy Waller, director of K-12 social studies and world languages at the Arizona Department of Education. While the law might “put up some roadblocks, changes in the way programs have developed have met with the law.”
Last year, the legislature also came close to approving a proposal by state Rep. John Fillmore, a Republican from Apache Junction, to repeal the law. While it passed overwhelmingly in the House, the session ended before the Senate took action.
In November, Fillmore pre-filed House Concurrent Resolution 2001, which would ask voters to decide in November on doing away with Proposition 203. State Superintendent Kathy Hoffman has also said she supports a repeal.
Lack of improvement under English-only laws
Passed in 2000, Proposition 203 was part of an English-only movement and similar to measures in California and Massachusetts, which have been repealed. The ballot initiative was based on the theory that prohibiting ELs to receive instruction in their home language would help them learn English faster.
The English-only movement still exists. The majority of states have passed legislation naming English as the official language, and similar efforts are continuing this year in New York and Wisconsin. It’s also a recurring issue in Congress, with the English Language Unity Act as the current version. And advocacy groups, such as ProEnglish, oppose bilingual education.
But the proposals are viewed as anti-immigrant, and advocates for immigrants criticized former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden earlier this month for suggesting speaking English should be a requirement for obtaining citizenship.
In education, researchers have learned more about effective strategies for teaching ELs, including literacy development and learning content in their home language. The growing view that bilingualism is an important 21st century skill is another reason policymakers and advocates have pushed to keep or restore bilingual education.
Researchers have also found outcomes among English learners — such as dropout rates and special education placement — did not improve under English-only laws.
In Arizona, where about 7% of the state's K-12 students are ELs, recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress is an indicator of the gap between ELs and their English-proficient peers. At 4th grade and 8th grade, average scores for ELs trail the statewide average by at least 30 points in both reading and math.
Limiting ‘our kids’
The Arizona law’s structured model emphasizes word pronunciation, vocabulary, word order rules and the use of English in different situations. Many argue the requirement has left ELs isolated and with less time for math, science, art and other subjects.
“A four-hour block can be detrimental to students’ schedules,” said Terri Cota, an English language acquisition specialist with the Mesa Public Schools, near Phoenix. “And when you think about secondary, we limit our kids to be able to take the classes they need for graduation.”
At the elementary level, she adds, the requirement limited ELs ability to participate in art, music and other enrichment programs.
When the state reduced the requirement from four hours to two, “we knew that we were going to push forward immediately” with making the change, Cota said. “We knew there was a big shift, but it was truly welcomed by principals and parents.”
To satisfy the two-hour requirement in high school, MPS created a writing and grammar class that gives students an English credit and a reading and oral language proficiency class that carries an elective credit.
The role of dual-language instruction
As they have across the country, dual-language immersion programs — in which students become fluent in English and a second language — have also been growing in Arizona districts. In addition to Spanish, languages taught through immersion have included French, Mandarin, Arabic and Navajo.
“Those programs became very popular as a way to create career-ready and college-ready students,” Waller said.
The state further encourages bilingualism through its seal of biliteracy, with more than 1,500 graduates earning that recognition last school year. “Biliteracy is a strong part of preparing for the global marketplace,” Waller said.
Research shows ELs can benefit from dual-language programs, and some districts view them as a strategy for reducing achievement disparities between ELs and native-English speakers. But ELs in Arizona have had limited access to dual-language programs because students have generally been required to have strong skills in English in order to enroll.
Parents of ELs have been able to apply for a waiver that allows their children to participate. In fact, when Patricia Fernandez, the dual-language immersion specialist for MPS, worked in the Kyrene School District, also in the Phoenix metro area, educators tracked a group of students on waivers who took part in the dual-language program. And they “developed language as if they were in” English language development classes, Fernandez said.
But the waiver process has been “difficult and complicated,” making it less likely parents will make the request, Evelyn Baca, now at Bucknell University, wrote in a 2018 article for New America. She called a repeal “long overdue.”
The ‘best of both worlds’
At the elementary level, dropping to the two-hour requirement has allowed more ELs to participate in dual-language immersion programs in which the day is evenly split between Spanish and English.
“It allows us to service our students in the best of both worlds,” Fernandez said. “They are using both languages to reach their academic goals, and when we have students with no English, they are still learning in their primary language. The beauty is that many skills transfer.”
The state school board’s latest policy, adopted Monday, she adds, “aligns with the goals for dual language.” Two of the four models maintain the two-hour block of time (100 minutes for grades 6-12) in targeted English instruction. Another model would have students spend half the block in a structured English language class and the rest in a general classroom with integrated language and content support from teachers.
The fourth model is a half hour of targeted English instruction and the balance of the time with support in the English portion of a dual-language immersion program.
Kate Wright, an associate superintendent for the Arizona Department of Education, said districts would be able to use any of the models at any of their schools and also use different models at different grade levels.
Fillmore’s bill would further open opportunities for ELs — often referred to as dual-language learners when they are still young — to participate in dual-language programs.
The bill received a second reading in the House Education Committee last week. As it moves forward, Baca said it’s important for lawmakers to consult with EL experts “to ensure that the language of the law, once passed, provides educators with the greatest ability to do what's right for Arizona's [ELs] and bi/multilingual communities.”
And if the law is ultimately repealed, bilingual teachers and programs won’t “magically return,” she said. “It will take years of thoughtful rebuilding to create high-quality bilingual programs for [ELs] in Arizona.”