Dennis Mitchell, 2004-2005 Winner
Young Steward of Public Policy
First Place Award 2004-2005
By Dennis Mitchell
Greenway High School
“Si usted no puede entender un idioma, no puede tener éxito.” Consider this: force a native English-speaking student into a classroom in which Spanish is the only language spoken. Now force that student to pass a test, which is also in Spanish. Doesn't sound fair, does it? An English speaker would have no clue that the above line in Spanish reads, “If you cannot understand a language, then you cannot have success.”
As a direct result of Proposition 203, passed in 2000, this situation has become a reality for non-English speaking students. The law requires that all instruction needs to be in "Structured English Immersion." From a logical standpoint, this makes no sense. Students have no chance to learn English before they are presented with coursework written in English. Nothing is accomplished if a student can't read the directions on a piece of paper because they are written in a language they don't understand. If the purpose of school is to learn, then providing the instructions to them in their native language would be the rational course of action. A student staring at words he or she can't understand is a waste of their time and abilities. This unjust law has stripped many students of the most basic and most vital element of the educational system—the ability to learn. By creating a fundamental communication barrier between students and teachers, we are placing a roadblock on the path of these students' future. To put it simply, the advantage to bilingual education is that students can learn English at a reasonable pace, and also learn in their native language so that they will not fall behind in all areas of their academic coursework. According to the text of Bilingual and ESL Classrooms, “All research findings in studies following students' long-term success show that the longer students remain in a quality bilingual program, the more they are able to reach academic parity with native English speakers.”
Why, if bilingual education is positively reinforced by research, did this proposition surface in the first place? Prop 203 is the brainchild of Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz. He funded and pushed a similar proposal through to passage in California, doing the same in Arizona. One report has disclosed that Unz contributed 81 percent of the total money used in the campaign for Prop 203. It's ridiculous to think that one man, a person that doesn't even live in our state, used his wealth to push this proposition through.
Now, let's look at the possible motives voters could have had when they approved this measure. Some voters probably went to the polls thinking, “If I go to Mexico, people there won't speak English to me, so why should we conform to their language?” The idea of bilingual education is not that we are conforming to Spanish. Rather, we are simply providing the best way for students to keep learning the subject material while they also learn English, as opposed to just learning English while academic material is neglected. This proposition unfairly drew off of culturally-based emotions to gain votes, when the most important aspect of the law was forgotten—the effect on the students. Many of these voters, not being of Hispanic descent, truly didn't understand the consequences the law would ultimately have. These Arizonans might not have realized that they were creating a block on the learning capabilities of others. Kristin Owsley, a fourth-grade teacher in Phoenix, has experienced this problem first hand. “I teach at a school with over 23 different languages. It is heartbreaking to see such bright and promising students struggle or fail because the law has effectively severed the communication between teacher and student.” Shouldn't those who will be affected by the change in policy be the ones making the decision as to the best way for these students to learn?”
Another argument supporters of Prop 203 had was that the bilingual education system was simply unsuccessful; however, this assertion is flawed. Reports by the Arizona Department of Education have documented that students in bilingual education programs routinely outperform their counterparts in other English immersion programs on the Stanford 9 English reading test. The success of the bilingual education program was not correctly portrayed or understood by voters.
Now that the problems of Prop 203 have been recognized, we can look at solutions. First and foremost, the law must be overturned. This is the easiest and most obvious way to fix the problem. Next, we must determine the correct type of bilingual program that will meet the needs of the students—a system that will both foster the ideals of education and recognize the difficulties faced by a minority. Research has shown that the dual-language model of bilingual education—where native and non-native speaking students are taught together in both languages—has been extremely successful in both the United States and Canada.
At the very least, we must take a new look at the effects that Proposition 203 has had on our own Spanish-speaking students. Currently, this proposition seems to be preventing a significant number of students from achieving the higher levels of success that have been seen in other bilingual education programs. As Arizonans, we must acknowledge that we all share the same state, and we must take the necessary steps to ensure that no person—particularly a student—is left behind. ¿Comprende?