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Thursday October 5, 2000

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Stripping away Culture

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By Lora J. Mackel

In November, Arizonans will have to make several important to decisions: who to elect as president, who to elect or re-elect to Congress, and whether to keep bilingual education in Arizona schools. Proposition 203, the ballot initiative that eliminates bilingual instruction in the state, elicits strong feelings from both sides. Its supporters, however, are in serious error because the proposition is an elitist, racist, impractical and illogical measure that would do more harm to Arizona's children than good.

Proposition 203 states, right from its beginning, that it intends to get every student in every classroom in Arizona speaking English only. It proposes to do this by putting non-native English speakers in intense "English immersion" programs for no longer than a year. The bill allows for no new funding, but does give parents an option to obtain a waiver for this intense program if their child is older than ten, has special needs or already knows English.

On the surface, Proposition 203 might sound like a practical measure. After all English is the language of our government and the lingua franca of the business world. But when the actual language of the proposal is carefully examined, a less benevolent picture of the bill's intentions emerges. Instead of being a practical measure to help children, the bill reads as an openly conservative call for English only in our state. Take this statement, for example, in the second clause of the proposition: "Immigrant parents are eager for their children to acquire a good knowledge of English, thereby allowing them to fully participate in the American Dream of economic and social advancement." The bill, not so subtly, asserts the idea that English is the dominant and superior language of a superior and dominant culture.

Prop 203 is also aimed primarily at Mexican-American immigrants. The strongest evidence of the proposition's racist focus is the lack of mention of the many English speakers in Arizona who receive bilingual instruction to further their linguistic horizons. If this bill was passed, parents of these native speakers would no longer have the option of giving their child a linguistically enriched environment in which to learn.

What the bill would do to the Mexican-American immigrant children is strip them of their linguistic link to their culture, which would be devastating intellectually and emotionally. Supporters of this proposition claim they had this demographic in mind when they wrote this bill. But what they really are supporting is the creation of an American society that is homogeneous and assimilated.

Most importantly, the anti-bilingual education movement is based on faulty logic. Scholarship simply does not support the removal of bilingual education from schools as the best way to obtain better educated English speakers. Fortunately, many of these tests have been conducted right in Southern Arizona, and they have shown that children thrive in an environment where more than one language is taught. In fact, in many of these studies, bilingually educated children did better or statistically insignificantly less well than their mainstream English speaking peers. Instead of applauding these successful classrooms, Proposition 203 calls them "costly experimental language programs." Their ignorance about the success of bilingual education betrays their real agenda.

Proposition 203 also neglects to account for social and economic factors when it attributes test failure to bilingual education. By doing so, it skews the results and misleads the public into believing bilingual education is a causal factor in educational failure. In truth, economic and social factors contribute far more to a student's chances for failure than does language. In schools that lack funding, it is not surprising to find low test scores for both English mainstreamed and bilingual students. Home environment also has a huge impact on educational success. Proposition 203 proposes now new solutions for these more pressing problems and will do nothing to improve needy student's education.

Additionally, Prop 203 proposes educational methods that go against what experts agree is healthy for children. It proposes to put non-native speakers in "total immersion programs," for not longer than a year. This isolates the non-native speakers, and expects then to learn in one year what most native English speakers have learned over a decade while still learning reading, math and science. Not only is this bill impractical, it is cruel.

No where else on earth are people so arrogant about their language and culture as Americans are. Literally every other place in the world, small children are instructed in more than one language. Only in America do we discourage our children from being multi-lingual, and expect them to speak only one language really well. All experts agree that the time to learn language well is in early childhood. American schools go against this logic, and begin their foreign language instruction much later. American actions speak loudly about American attitudes, and language is one of the primary ways in which America asserts how important it is to the rest of the world.

When voting this November, keep in mind the true intentions of Proposition 203's authors. Think of all the children who will be negatively impacted if this bill is passed. Think about the way America is, and think about how America should ideally be. After careful contemplation you should have no difficulty voting against this racist, impractical and elitist bill.