Over the past several weeks, Florida and Arizona kicked off their legislative sessions considering UnidosUS-sponsored legislation to improve instruction practices for English learners (ELs). The organization is driving the issue forward with upcoming legislative events that bring the voice of parents, educators, students, and community activists to the two state capitals .
Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the latest iteration of federal laws governing equal access to K-12 education, states are required to make every effort to accommodate all students. English learners are considered one of the more vulnerable student groups because some states aren’t offering dual language learning programs or working to place ELs in the right coursework for their overall academic levels with native language assessments. UnidosUS considers Florida and Arizona two key states on this issue because of their high concentrations of ELs, the vast majority of whom are Spanish speakers.
On February 19, the Arizona State House of Representatives passed HCR2026 with overwhelming support on a 59-1 vote. This bill that would give Arizona voters the opportunity to repeal the state’s English-only instruction policies. Under the Structured English Immersion program, English learners are pulled from their regular coursework and placed into four-hour blocks until they are considered English proficient. This practice has come under fire by education equity advocates, including State Superintendent Kathy Hoffman, who has noted that under the current system, only18% of ELs manage to graduate high school. The Arizona legislature recently passed and Governor Ducey signed SB 2014, which provides schools with some flexibility on the four-hour Structured English Immersion (SEI) block. Civil rights and education leaders pushing to repeal the SEI program say SB 2014 is a step in the right direction, but that it doesn’t go far enough in supporting EL students on their path to reaching English proficiency.
“To me, this represents an opportunity in our state. They have so much potential. We need to view their multilingualism as a professional asset and a benefit rather than a deficit,” Hoffman told participants of an Arizona Education Policy Summit hosted by UnidosUS in Phoenix last November.
“The academic success of EL students should be paramount for lawmakers and education leaders alike. As one of the fastest growing segments of our school-aged population, it is necessary that our public schools—in Arizona and across the country—invest in systems and policies that better serve ELs and their path to college and career success,” Amalia Chamorro, Associate Director of UnidosUS’s Education Policy Project, said in a statement last month.
To that end, a ballot referral is now moving through the Senate with the goal of putting this measure on the 2020 ballot. If it passes, UnidosUS’s education policy team believes this will be a gamechanger for students in Arizona by helping to push the concept of dual language learning as a vital practice in the state’s education system.
Arizona education advocate Geoff Esposito is working alongside UnidosUS to help spread the word about the pitfalls of English-only instruction, and make policymakers and the general public aware that ELs don’t currently enjoy the same dual language opportunities as their native English speaking peers who might be enrolled in classes for languages such as Spanish or Mandarin.
“There are dual language programs out there that we know are working for other kids to learn another language. Why shouldn’t that same opportunity be available to help teach kids English?” He asks.
He envisions a school system in which ELs would be better integrated into the state’s multilingual reality, one where native speakers of other common languages such as Spanish, Mandarin, and Navajo, one of the most widely used Native American languages, could simultaneously teach their peers what they know as they build up their English proficiency.
To further that vision, UnidosUS’ Arizona Education Organizer Ylenia Aguilar is coordinating a legislative briefing on March 21 with state lawmakers, English learner students and dual language instructors.
“I am excited for our upcoming legislative briefing, as we continue to engage our Arizona state legislators to address the state’s English-only policies, which have had a generational impact on students, parents, and teachers,” says Aguilar. “We hope they recognize that dual-language programs are necessary in an increasingly global economy, and that if we want to prepare our Arizona students to be its future workforce, we need to prepare them to be multilingual.
Meanwhile, Florida kicked off its legislative session this week with two native language assessment bills in the House and Senate co-sponsored by UnidosUS and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).
These groups are among many civil rights organizations who recognize that ELs in Florida are at a clear disadvantage because they are often forced to take core subjects such as math or science at a level that is below their actual knowledge because they have not been placed correctly due to the lack of native language assessments.
At the same time, UnidosUS hopes to galvanize support for this legislation by organizing our first lobby day in which families of ELs from across the state will travel to Tallahassee on April 3 and 4 to give testimony on how the current education laws affect their children.
“This lets officials see what parents are going through in terms of education, and how that impacts the student’s performance and overall wellbeing,” says Jared Nordlund, UnidosUS’s Senior Strategist for Florida,” he says.“We know that ELs are underperforming on standardized tests in the state, and we feel part of it is that they’re forced to take a test in a language they don’t speak fluently.”
At the same time, he says this process of civic engagement strengthens the UnidosUS’s affiliate network.
“It builds up advocates and builds political power for the longer term,” he says.