Tom Horne, Kris Mayes clash over dual-language teaching in AZ classrooms

The fight between Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne and Democratic Attorney General Kris Mayes over whether Arizona schools can use dual-language models to teach students who are learning English continued this week, with Horne again threatening to take legal action. 

In an Aug. 14 letter to Mayes’ legal counsel, Horne accused the Avondale, Kyrene, Mesa, and Chandler school districts of violating a law that voters approved in 2000 that requires English language learners to be taught only in English — and to be taught via sheltered immersion programs, typically for no more than one year. 

But a lot has changed in the 23 years since voters approved Proposition 203. 

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In 2019, with a grim academic outlook for English language learner, or ELL, students, the state legislature amended the ELL laws and tasked the State Board of Education with looking into research-based models for English as a second language instruction. In 2020, the board approved a dual-language instruction model that allows students to learn for half the day in English and the other half in their native language. 

On June 19, Horne declared that using the dual-language model violated Prop. 203, and the next day the Arizona Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition Services sent a letter to public schools saying that the dual-language model was not approved as a form of sheltered English immersion. The only way it could be used, Horne’s office said, was if students who wish to participate return a waiver signed by a parent. 

In an Aug. 11 letter from Mayes’ office to Associate Superintendent of Public Instruction Maria Syms, Mayes said her office had received several complaints from school districts saying that the Department of Education was requiring parents to sign waiver for their children to participate in dual-language instruction. 

This was after Mayes issued an opinion in July saying that waivers were not needed since the State Board of Education had approved dual-language as a structured English immersion program.  Mayes also said that the Department of Education had no authority to punish schools that implemented the dual-language instruction model. 

In his Aug. 14 response, Horne claimed that Mayes was incorrect and that the State Board of Education had no authority to override the will of the voters. 

Horne had previously threatened to withhold funding from districts that used the dual-language model without requiring waivers. He also promised to take legal action if the schools did not begin requiring waivers. 

“There has to be a consequence for violating the law,” Horne told the Arizona Mirror. “I’m quite positive that no school would continue once it was established that they would lose funding if they continue violating the law. I don’t think that would happen.”

While Mayes characterized Horne’s waiver requirement as “an attempt to impose consequences on schools” that use the dual language instruction model, Horne told the Mirror that “it only takes five seconds” for a parent to sign a waiver. 

Horne insisted that students who don’t speak English in their homes will have any issues obtaining a signed waiver, which are available on the department website in both English and Spanish

“No parent is too busy to sign a waiver,” Horne said. “To a parent, the child is the most important thing in his or her life.” 

He added that if a child does not receive a waiver, they must learn in a full English-immersion classroom until they become proficient in English. 

“They must learn English to succeed in the economy and to function in the United States,” Horne said. “To say that, because they can’t understand English, we’re just going to teach them in Spanish, I think, is a terrible disservice to these students. The point is for them to master English as quickly as possible and then they can learn in the regular classrooms with the other kids.” 

Horne conceded that while English learners in full immersion classrooms might learn the language more quickly, they will likely fall behind in other subjects, since those subjects are being taught in a language the student doesn’t fully understand. 

“You can teach subjects to people who know limited English,” he said. “Math is a good example, but I’ve seen, also, social studies taught in English to students whose English was limited. Admittedly, they have to catch up once they become proficient, they have some catching up to do on their academics, but the studies show that they might do better in the long run if they master English quickly and then do whatever catching up they have to do.” 

Horne pointed to a 2002 study from Joseph Guzman, published in the journal Education Next, that supports English immersion programs for students to quickly learn the language. 

But a 2014 study, conducted in Arizona and published in the Journal of Multilingual Education Research, found that full English immersion for students who don’t understand the language led to clear psychological impacts, including anxiety and depression. 

There is also evidence that dual-language programs do work to bring students closer to proficiency in English, but it typically takes longer than English-immersion programs, and some students might never reach fluency in English. 

Richie Taylor, a spokesman for Mayes, told the Mirror he couldn’t comment on the interaction between legal counsel for the attorney general and the Department of Education.

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