Bilingual Education: Strike Two

Arizona voters follow California's lead and mandate English-only programs.

By James Crawford

By an electoral landslide on Nov. 7, Arizona became the second state to adopt an English-only schools initiative. Proposition 203, modeled on a California measure adopted in 1998, is aimed at banning bilingual education for virtually all children learning English as a second language.

Whether it will achieve that goal is one of the new law’s many uncertainties. Others include which students will be affected, how much native-language instruction will be allowed, what choices parents will have, who will be defined as an “English learner,” and even when the measure will take effect.

For children whose English is limited, Proposition 203 prohibits instruction in any language other than English, even in programs designed to teach them a foreign or Native American language. Such students are to be placed in a “structured English immersion” program “not normally intended to exceed one year.” While segregating these children by language proficiency, schools would be encouraged to mix them by age and grade.

The initiative’s sweeping language would appear to include most American Indian students learning tribal languages as well as most deaf students studying in American Sign Language. That’s because large percentages of such children are currently assessed as “limited English proficient.”

Bilingual educators, who had actively opposed the initiative, nevertheless expressed a guarded optimism about mitigating its impact.

“The battle now shifts into the hands of parents and local leaders in individual districts,” said Sal Gabaldon, a school administrator in Tucson. He noted that even though Proposition 203 mandates a one-size-fits-all immersion program, it also “requires bilingual education under certain circumstances” – for example, in schools where at least 20 parental requests for an alternative program are granted. While fearing for “students who live in districts where parents of English learners do not have enough political clout” to preserve the bilingual option, Gabaldon vowed that “in Tucson Unified, we will not permit such injustice.”

The state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Lisa Graham Keegan, pledged “to work with schools to develop an orderly transition process” to all-English instruction. Keegan said she assumed the law’s restrictions “will not take effect until the 2001-2002 school year.” But under the state constitution, initiatives are immediately “self-executing.” The law’s proponents could therefore sue for an immediate dismantling of bilingual programs.

Opponents, meanwhile, are exploring a possible legal challenge on civil rights grounds. By requiring children to be segregated until they acquire English, limiting their access to programs available to other students, and restricting teachers’ ability to address their individual needs, Proposition 203 authorizes, in effect, a two-tier system of education. Such disparate treatment appears to conflict with both state and federal laws.

If California’s experience is any guide, however, clear answers from elected officials and the courts could be slow in coming.

Like the California measure, Proposition 203 was spearheaded by Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley millionaire who has launched a nationwide assault against bilingual education. According to reports filed with the Arizona Secretary of State, Unz supplied more than 99 percent of the funding necessary to place the “English for the Children” initiative on the ballot and sell it to the voters.


Frustrated by the way California’s law has been interpreted – nearly 170,000 students, or 12 percent of English learners, have won the right to continue in bilingual classrooms there – Unz made Proposition 203 more restrictive in numerous ways. Among other things, the initiative:

  • Prohibits any “teaching of reading, writing, or subject matter” and the use of “books and instructional materials” in a language other than English.
  • Restricts “waivers” of the English-only rule, for children under age 10, to those with “physical or psychological handicaps” – i.e., special education students; only for older children would schools be given flexibility to exercise their “informed belief” about what’s best for the student.
  • Allows parental waiver requests to be denied “without explanation or legal consequence.”
  • Requires English learners to be reassigned to mainstream classrooms once they have acquired “a good working knowledge of English” (a standard that remains undefined).
  • Repeals all Arizona statutes governing the education of English language learners, including standards of student assessment, teacher training, program accountability, parental choice, and other civil rights guarantees.
  • Mandates English language achievement tests for all Arizona students, regardless of their English proficiency.
  • Invites lawsuits to enforce the initiative by any “parent or legal guardian of any Arizona school child.”
  • Holds educational administrators and school board members who violate the law liable for personal financial damages, which could not be paid by an insurance policy or other third party.
  • May never be repealed by the Arizona legislature; while amendments to “further the purposes” of the law will require a three-fourths “super majority” vote in both houses, substantive changes will require passage of another statewide ballot measure.

Opponents of Proposition 203 began organizing more than two years before the election, determined to avoid the strategic mistakes of their California colleagues in combating Ron Unz. In particular, they resolved to mount a vigorous defense of bilingual education and to organize a strong grassroots effort among the program’s core constituencies.

Arizonans stressed the injustice of denying language-minority parents a say in their children’s education in a state where the principle of school choice is virtually sacrosanct. Out of about 140,000 English learners in the state’s public schools, 45,000 – or 32 percent – are now enrolled in bilingual education, at the discretion of parents and local districts. Unlike California, Arizona has never imposed a statewide mandate for bilingual education or any other program for teaching these students.

The initiative’s opponents also highlighted the potentially devastating impact on programs aimed at revitalizing Native American languages. All of the state’s 21 tribal languages are threatened with extinction because most Indian children grow up speaking only English. Up until now, the Navajo, Tohono O’odham, Apache, Hualapai, and other tribes had placed hopes for reversing this trend on bilingual education as well as Native language immersion. Under Proposition 203, they may be forced to dismantle these programs.

Despite the strong arguments mustered by opponents, regional and political rivalries sabotaged hopes of building a unified campaign. Four major groups vied for leadership of the “No on 203” forces, complicating the tasks of raising campaign funds and communicating a coherent message. Because resources were limited – less than 10 percent of what opponents of the California initiative had raised in 1998 – so was TV advertising to educate the electorate. By a slight margin, opponents appear to have outspent the English for the Children forces. But Ron Unz, looking at lopsided opinion polls, saw little need for a paid media effort.

With 14 initiatives on the Arizona ballot, the news media paid scant attention to the fine print of Proposition 203. According to opinion surveys, most voters understood the measure as simply a question of teaching children English more rapidly and effectively. Framed in this way, it passed with 63 percent of the 1.5 million votes cast – 2 points higher than the margin in California.


The one bright spot was the resounding defeat of Proposition 203 in northern Arizona, thanks to aggressive organizing by educators on and around the Navajo, Hopi, and Apache reservations. For example, the Diné (Navajo) Division of Education convened meetings at most of the tribe’s 110 “chapter houses” to discuss the threat to language revitalization programs. Virtually all of the state’s tribes participated in two large marches on the state capitol in Phoenix, busing in hundreds of Indian educators and activists to participate.

Latino educators also sponsored a vigil on the capitol grounds over the final weekend before the vote. The event drew hundreds of parents and children in bilingual programs to join in protesting state officials’ silence on Proposition 203. At Arizona State University, Mexican American students organized a “tag-team” fast, with each participant foregoing nourishment for 24 hours to publicize their opposition. In the final weeks, opponents held numerous community marches and rallies in Flagstaff, Yuma, and especially Tucson.

Still, these grassroots efforts received limited publicity in the news media. In addition, most organizers agreed, they came too late to have a broad community impact. No exit polls were conducted to determine how Latinos voted on Proposition 203. But unlike the pattern in California, there was no obvious landslide against the initiative in Latino precincts. In Santa Cruz County, with an 80 percent Mexican American population, the measure passed with 53 percent of the vote. In Greenlee County, whose residents are evenly divided between Latinos and Anglos, Proposition 203 received 46 percent.

By contrast, there seemed to be an overwhelming degree of “consumer satisfaction” with bilingual education among those touched by it directly. According to a survey of 2,400 Tucson parents with children enrolled in the program at 12 schools, rates of approval ranged from 89 to 98 percent. Overall, among those offered a choice among program alternatives – as required by Arizona law – less than one percent of Latino parents in Tucson requested an English-only program.

For the most part, however, these were the views of noncitizens – many recently arrived from Mexico – who were ineligible to vote on Proposition 203.

Alejandra Sotomayor, a bilingual teacher and activist in the Tucson-based English Plus More Committee, attributed many of the campaign’s weaknesses to its remote and undemocratic leadership. Educators and grassroots organizers were largely shunted aside by politicians pursuing “other agendas that had nothing to do with defeating Proposition 203,” she said.

Indeed, the inaction of traditional allies – including, with few exceptions, the state’s Latino leadership – became a sore point within the opposition campaign. Republican Governor Jane Dee Hull reportedly convinced many Democrats to unite behind Proposition 301, a sales-tax-for-education initiative, and to keep a low profile on Proposition 203.

“We saw a remarkable political cowardice from all sides,” said Jeff MacSwan of the Arizona State University College of Education, “from both parties and especially from former supporters like Senator John McCain, who were completely silent.”

Surprisingly, the opposition received limited help – financial or otherwise – from allies outside of Arizona. The one notable exception was the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education, which had faced a similar English-only initiative this year, but successfully argued in court that the measure should be stricken from the ballot on grounds of deceptiveness.


Following the Arizona vote, Ron Unz reiterated plans to take his campaign to “eliminate bilingual education” to other states, including Colorado, New York, and Texas.

English-only campaigns have been on the wane in recent years, as proponents run out of states willing to enact such legislation. Most of these measures involve symbolic declarations of English as the state’s “official language.” But an initiative passed by Utah voters in the 2000 election is significantly more restrictive on the provision of public services in other languages.

Arizona’s passage of Proposition 203 comes in a period of intensified anxieties about undocumented immigration and growing vigilante activities against it. But there is no evidence that conscious racial animus played a decisive role in the election. More obvious was the widespread public ignorance about how bilingual education helps children acquire the kind of English they need to succeed in school. This made it difficult to debunk caricatures of bilingual education as an “all-Spanish” program that was holding Latino students back academically.

Generally speaking, voters have short attention spans when it comes to complex questions that do not affect them directly. In Arizona as well as California, few appear to have gotten beyond their first impression: “If you live in America, you need to speak English.”

Wherever the issue of bilingual education is brought to a popular vote, advocates for language-minority children will have their work cut out, MacSwan predicted. “There’s just so much overt and covert racism in our society to fuel it and so much suspicion that large groups of immigrants are opposed to assimilation. Many people are just looking for an excuse to vote against bilingual education.”

Still, he stressed the importance of making a coherent case for the program, by patiently explaining its rationale to the public. Despite their campaign’s shortcomings, that is what bilingual educators worked hard to do in Arizona.

James Crawford’s latest book is At War with Diversity: U.S. Language Policy in an Age of Anxiety (Multilingual Matters, 2000). For further information on bilingual education and related issues, visit his web site: