Nearly 20 years ago, Arizona Republicans and civic groups supported a proposition banning bi-lingual education for non-English speaking students in favor of an “English immersion” approach. But now, as evidence mounts that the immersion program has failed, members of both political parties are considering new ideas.

Proposition 203 forced English-language learners to speak only English and spend four hours per day for an entire school year in immersion classes. The thought was that this approach would help non-English speakers pick up the language faster, but that’s not what has happened.

Reyna Montoya, now 28, was a “math wiz” when she was 13 but didn’t speak English. She says being forced into the four-hour English-immersion bloc kept her from moving into an honors math class suggested by her teacher and put her behind in her other classes. 

“I was really good at math, but because of the bloc I couldn’t make it work with my schedule … so I felt discouraged that all that seemed to matter about me wasn’t that I was good at math, but that I could not speak English,” Montoya recently told the Arizona Capitol Times.

Montoya’s experience isn’t uncommon. 

Proposition 203 was supposed to help English Language Learners (ELL students) learn English by making them spend a year in immersion classes and then transitioning them into traditional classes once they demonstrated a working knowledge of the language. But these students frequently wound up stuck in ELL classes for years, causing them to fall behind in other required classes, which in turn often delayed their graduation dates.

The most recent data from the Department of Education shows the 2017 graduation rate of Limited English Proficient students is roughly 40%.

Montoya was fortunate to test out of her ELL class after one year, but she still felt separated from her English-speaking peers. “I felt isolated, no matter how hard I worked it was never good enough,” Montoya told the Capitol Times. “It created a lot of stress and anxiety.”

The English-only approach also doesn’t appear to be accomplishing its chief goal: teaching students the language.

State data shows that Arizona’s non-native English speakers are struggling on the AzMERIT exam, the state’s annual standardized test. Only 4% of these students are passing the English portion of the test and 9% are passing the math portion.

A report from the State Board of Education found “significant deficiencies” in Arizona’s Structured English Immersion model, and determined that Arizona’s model segregates students “both physically and academically.” The report also found that the model failed to provide proper training for teachers, prevented access to challenging courses and was unrealistic in its goal of transitioning students to traditional classrooms in just one year. 

Armed with all this evidence, Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, a Democrat, has made it a priority to repeal Proposition 203 in 2020. The Legislature’s Democratic Caucus has expressed support for repeal, and many Republicans have too. 

But there’s one catch: Because the English-only law was passed by voters, they can’t repeal the policy without voter approval, meaning they have to place the law on the ballot for a referendum. 

The state almost succeeded in referring a full repeal of the English-only education law to the 2020 ballot, but the measure failed to receive a full Senate vote in the final hours of this year’s legislative session. Lawmakers did pass SB1014, which reduced the time ELL students have to spend in English immersion class from four hours per day to two. 

But full repeal still remains the goal. 

The new idea being espoused by Hoffman and legislators from both parties would allow schools to mix native English speakers and students learning English together in the classroom, allowing them to speak both languages in the same space. 

Rep. Michelle Udall (R-Mesa) said she has seen data that indicates repeal would be a good idea. “Studies are showing more and more that if you can teach students in both languages simultaneously they can do much better in all subjects,” Udall told the Capitol Times. 

Those studies are in line with Monotya’s experience. “I benefited more being in those mainstream classes because I was able to talk to native speakers,” she told the outlet.

If Hoffman and legislators are successful, the next generation of non-English speaking students will have that opportunity off the bat, without toiling away in ELL classes and falling behind.