Seventeen Years Later: The Persistence of Structured English Immersion in Arizona

Blog Post
Oct. 23, 2017

For the last seventeen years Arizona has been a breeding ground for harmful education policies targeting its longstanding Hispanic and Native American populations as well as more recent immigrant students. Unfortunately, this history of discrimination is not new. As a result, the battle for equitable learning opportunities continues to play out in classrooms and courtrooms across the state. In recent years, it has been a particularly rough road for the state’s dual language learners (DLLs), those students still in the process of developing basic proficiency in both English and their native languages.

 The persistence of Arizona’s mandated statewide Structured English Immersion (SEI) curricular model for DLLs stands out as one of the unfortunate legacies of numerous ill-formed educational policies implemented over the last 20 years. The now-infamous ballot Proposition 203 that established it was passed into law seventeen years ago. The perfidiously worded proposition was funded largely by one special interest group outside of the state and presented to a largely uninformed, non-educator electorate who voted in favor of ensuring that Arizona’s schools provided “English for the Children.” At best, the 63 percent of voters supporting the English-Only mandate perhaps believed that this proposition would in fact benefit DLLs. At worst, it was political spectacle rooted in a long history of racist, nativist ideological stances. In all likelihood it was a combination of both.  

Second language acquisition expert Stephen Krashen was among the first to publically speak out against the initiative when a similar proposition (funded by the same special interest group) was first introduced in California. He warned that, if passed, the proposition would not only be “disastrous” for DLLs academic achievement, but would also blatantly disregard educational research, children’s civil rights, and parental rights to choose an instructional model for their children.  

Arizona’s SEI law dismantled a number of established bilingual programs and required DLL students to be placed in segregated “English-only” classrooms that focus on learning basic English for four hours a day. Although the Arizona State Department of Education (ADE) recently allowed districts to request “refinements” to the four-hour block model (including a one or two hour reduction in the total amount of time students spend receiving SEI instruction), a closer review of ADE’s “approved refinements” shows that little has changed and confirms the state’s continued commitment to SEI as the singular curricular model available to DLLs in Arizona.

The hotbed of controversy that has followed Arizona’s SEI education policy has made national news on numerous occasions. In fact, Arizona’s DLL polices have spurred such alarm that a number of civil rights complaints have been filed in recent years with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Justice. ADE has entered into two resolution agreements to address these concerns. Additionally, scholars have dedicated books, special journal issues, news reports, and even a civil rights equity project to understanding and contesting the highly restrictive, top-down trajectory that the Arizona law has taken. To briefly summarize their findings: the SEI curricular model has created more problems than it has solved.

Indeed, Krashen’s ominous warnings have now come to pass: the segregated SEI mandate has produced ugly linguistic, academic, and socioemotional consequences; DLLs are still taking longer than a year to achieve reclassification (despite the law’s supporters unrealistically promising that the SEI program would not “exceed one year”); the “achievement” gap is not closing; and too many reclassified DLLs continue to struggle. Instead, there is now an unprecedented opportunity gap — young DLLs are being shut out of valuable academic and biliteracy development experiences.

And so, writing seventeen years later, I wonder, like so many others, why when we know what we know, do we not take corrective actions? Is this the legacy Arizona wants to leave for future generations? When did the best interests of all our youth, particularly those most in need, fall off the education policymaking agenda?

To summarize the work of Arizona’s own Richard Ruiz, we need to shift our perspective from viewing the home languages of DLLs as a problem to be remedied — and replaced — with English to viewing minority languages as resources to be nourished and developed alongside English. This is important not only because prohibiting DLLs from enrolling in dual immersion programs is unethical, but also because it contradicts a long line of research establishing the benefits of dual immersion programs for DLLs. 

If we are interested in truly improving academic, social, and long term post-secondary outcomes for DLLs, Arizona would be wise to follow the lead of the numerous states across the country (e.g. Utah, Texas, North Carolina, Illinois, New Mexico, and Delaware to name a few) where multilingual educational models are being adopted as one important way to address the academic needs of DLLs. A report put out by the U.S. Department of Education highlights the continued growth and key characteristics of dual immersion programs across the country. Arizona, however, is only mentioned briefly as one of two states with explicit policies restricting DLL access to dual immersion education.

Our neighbors to the west and north continue to expand dual language immersion opportunities for DLLs and mainstream students alike. Last fall, California successfully replaced a nearly identical draconian SEI law with the California Multilingual Education Act of 2016. In doing so, they eliminated barriers to bilingual education and granted schools the flexibility needed to choose the best instructional models for their students. In Arizona, research indicates that educators desire freedom to choose dual immersion and other more flexible instructional models rooted in best practices for DLLs.

It is time for Arizona policymakers to value the voices of multilingual families and the expertise of educators who work with DLLs on a daily basis. SEI as codified and enforced is cheating Arizona’s DLLs of the “equal educational opportunities” they are guaranteed under federal law and has rendered our DLLs as the forgotten victims of political and ideological wars of nearly twenty years ago. Arizona is currently stuck in the past while our DLLs wait for action from their apathetic, and seemingly disinterested legislature. Preparing our youth for the multicultural and multilingual world of the future will require a shift in perspective — one that embraces Arizona’s young DLLs as a valuable resource, rather than a problem.