PHOENIX -- A House panel voted Monday to ask voters to remove restrictions on how English can be taught to students who come to school speaking another language.
On a 10-1 vote members of the Education Committee said they want to scrap a 2000 voter-approved law which dictates that these students be put into "sheltered English immersion'' until they are fluent. That means classes separate from other students in the same grades.
Lawmakers in prior years have eased up somewhat on the requirement for students to be in these English-language classes four hours a day. But the underlying 2000 law remains, limiting the kind of models that school districts can use to achieve fluency.
HCR 2001 would replace that with a requirement for public school to use whatever methods they find to ensure that student master the English language. And that is likely to be a return to some form of bilingual education, where students are taught all subjects in both languages.
"This is a simple bill that says all the kids should have the equal chance to learn,'' said Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction.
Fillmore acknowledged that there are other political issues that have been tied up in the debate about teaching English, not the least of which is illegal immigration which has put students without English language skills into Arizona schools. But he urged colleagues not to confuse that with the underlying purpose of what he is trying to do.
"No matter what my feelings are on immigration status or things of that nature -- and I've gotten some flak on that in the past -- to me, it's immaterial,'' Fillmore explained.
"I'm here because I want to see our kids educated,'' he said.
The problem, Fillmore said, is when students are confined to classrooms where English is the only thing being taught they are not keeping up with their counterparts who are in classes learning math, science and other subjects. That, he said, means they end up "being held back.''
And Fillmore said his measure, if approved by voters, would create something else: an opportunity for students who come to school knowing only English to pick up a second language.
The proposal drew strong support from Anna Manzano who is the dual-language program coordinator for the Tucson Unified School District which has about 5,000 "English learners.'' And she said that, all totaled, there are 94 different languages that students speak when they come to school.
Manzano said that the district is able to provide some two-way, dual language programs without violating the 2000 voter-approved law.
She said students in these programs have academic achievement that is at or above students in "mainstream'' classrooms. And Manzano said the program produces students who are certified as bilingual when they graduate, making them "highly desirable'' to employers.
The problem, she explained to lawmakers, is that the district can offer these programs only in classrooms that are "linguistically balanced,'' meaning when there are an equal number of students whose predominant language is English and those whose predominant language is the target language.
But she said the law does not allow admission of students who cannot demonstrate good English and are younger than 10. Manzano said that leaves the district struggling to achieve that linguistic balance.
"Our team is here in support of HCR 2001 which will allow all students access to two-way dual-language programs,'' she told lawmakers.
But Johanna Haver told lawmakers that any move to repeal the 2000 law ignores why voters decided to limit bilingual educatgion in the first place.
"At that time, back in the 90s, only 4 percent of English learners were reaching English language competency every year,'' said Haver, who said she spent 19 years of her 32-year career teaching English language learners.
"We had huge numbers of children graduating from our high schools who could not speak English, mostly Spanish speakers,'' said Haver, who served four years on the governing board of the Maricopa County Community College district.
Haver specifically criticized the Tucson program, saying that in kindergarten and first grade only 30 minutes is devoted to instruction in English.
"Even a genius Spanish-speaking child would have difficulty learning English in such short intervals, whereas the English speakers would do quite well learning English,'' she said. Haver said Arizona should follow the lead of Portland, Ore., where she said children entering school are tested and, if they are not fluent in English, are put into immersion programs.
Only Rep. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, voted against the measure. It now needs approval by the full House.
A similar measure did clear the House last year only to falter when it was not brought to the Senate floor.