Language Replaces Race as Inferiority Badge

   By James J. Lyons, Esq.

   Hispanic Link News Service

   Language has replaced race as the government-manufactured badge of social inferiority in Arizona.  Long before the Arizona legislature passed the anti-immigrant law SB 1070, state officials devised a strategy to rid the state of languages other than English, and, presumably, the people who speak them, using the powerful prod of public education. 

   One of the principal architects of that strategy is the Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne.  Horne, a Republican, is currently running to be the state’s Attorney General.

   Arizona’s “English-only” education policies are at the heart of an 18-year-old civil rights case currently being heard in U.S. District Court in Tucson.  The case is Horne v. Flores.  While it may be weeks or longer for the District Court to issue its ruling in the case, a few facts, not in dispute, can and should be noted.

   Horne v. Flores went all the way to the United States Supreme Court last year.  Superintendent Horne and members of the state legislature petitioned the court to set aside a lower court order fining the state for failing to fund and implement effective instructional programs for children who arrive at school speaking a language other than English.  They argued that a key civil rights law, the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 (EEOA) had been superseded by an education law, the 2000 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.

   The Supreme Court set aside the fines but declared that the EEOA was still the law of the land   It remanded the case to the district court to examine whether Arizona was actually taking “appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in its instructional programs” as required by the civil rights law. 

   Arizona effectively banned bilingual education in 2000 when voters adopted Proposition 203, which mandated that all children, especially those who are limited in their English proficiency (LEP), must be instructed only in English. The measure was promoted by Ron Unz, California multi-millionaire businessman.

   Unz, trained as a theoretical physicist, proclaimed that children could master English as a second language if they were totally immersed in it for a year.  Although Unz’s claim was challenged by virtually all scholars of language development and most rank-and-file teachers of English-as-a-second language, his crusade to abolish bilingual education was successful in California, Arizona and Massachusetts. It was narrowly defeated in Colorado.

   In 2002, former state legislator and Paradise Valley School Board member Tom Horne declared his candidacy for Arizona’s State Superintendent of Instruction, running on a pledge to enforce the new state ban on bilingual education.  Using Unz-like arguments that one year of intensive English instruction would give limited-English-proficient students the language skills they need to succeed academically, Horne was elected with 50.12 percent of the vote.

   Horne developed a program called “Structured English Immersion” to implement the English-only law.  Under it, all LEP students are enrolled in a 4-hour special program of English language development daily. The classes are segregated, enrolling no English proficient students, and often include students of widely differing ages and grade levels.  Students must remain in their segregated classes until tests show they are English proficient.

   Critics quickly pointed out many flaws in the program.  By putting students in classes segregated by language proficiency, the program deprives students of English-language role-models and inculcates a personal sense of inferiority.  Because the focus is on learning English, students fall behind in the academic-content subjects, drastically reducing their chances to gain college degrees 

   Despite the promise that the programs would be short-term, generally they are not.  Recent state statistics show that not even one-third of the students (29%) exit the segregated Structured English Immersion programs after one year.  For secondary level students, the prolonged enrollment of LEP students in the 4-hour per day program guarantees that they cannot earn enough academic credits to graduate from high school on time.  So they drop out of school.

   Even before the Court rules in Horne v. Flores, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education have notified the state that it must revise the procedures and tests it uses to identify LEP students. Now they do not identify all of the LEP children entitled to instructional help.

   The Justice Department is also looking into whether Horne and his employees in the Department of Education are leaning on school districts to dismiss or reassign teachers who speak English with an accent or make an occasional error in English grammar.  The high-level DOJ probe, revealed in a Wall Street Journal article on April 30th, is still on-going.

   (James J. Lyons, is a civil rights policy attorney in Arlington, VA.  He is a former staff member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and served in the Department of Education under President Jimmy Carter.  For 16 years he was lobbyist for and then Executive Director of the National Association for Bilingual Education.


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