March 30, 2019

English Language Learning (ELL) students get boost with new law

History of ELL

The year 2000 was weird. Somewhere in-between the razor flip phone and the myspace surveys, a wealthy Silicon Valley software entrepreneur named Ron Unz, launched a national multimillion-dollar crusade against the manner in which children learned English as a second language. His approach was simple, take an idea that sounded good on paper, without any real high-quality research supporting it, and pass the restrictive Sheltered English Immersion Proposition 227 in California. Then, take that model ballot initiative language to other states including Arizona and push it on the voters. Suffice to say, the initiative passed with 63 percent of voters supporting it during the November 2000 elections.

At its core, Arizona’s version of the measure, Proposition 203, created a major change to the way we teach English in our state. It put into law the requirement to segregate all identified ELL students from their peers for 4 hours per day into intensive Sheltered English Immersion (SEI) programs. This meant that students who weren’t considered proficient in English were removed from their mainstream classroom (math, science, etc.) and missed out on critically important content that also ended up setting them back in those areas. There was a mandate that all instruction/materials must be in English, which further created disconnect between educators and students as teachers were not allowed to create connections between complicated concepts in a student’s native language in order to further assist in English acquisition. Prop 203 also did not outline the requirements for a high-quality assessment to measure proficiency rates and tied funding for these students to participation in the SEI program. This meant that if schools wanted to offer an alternative program and parents opted their students out of SEI to participate in the alternative program, the state would withhold money from supporting those students who had opted out, thus forcing the school to cover the cost of paying for the alternative program.

What we have heard from local Arizona school leaders is that the program has failed a generation’s worth of students. We have seen examples where students entered the SEI program in Kindergarten and are still participating in the program in the 10th grade. In these extreme cases, the students have been passed along and have missed hundreds, if not thousands worth of hours of critical core class time and are set to have a bleak future. These indicators show the program’s original intent to have children become English proficient in one year has failed.

The Change

This year Arizona made a change that will help, rather than hurt, Arizona’s large population of students who speak English as a second language — a difficult task given the state’s rigid voter protection clause. Arizona is one of a few states with a voter protection clause in our state constitution, which protects any ballot initiative enacted by the voters of Arizona from tampering by the Arizona State Legislature. This means that in order to undo a voter-protected measure, it has to go back to the voters for a vote. The only way the legislature can make a change is if it is “furthering the purpose” of what voters originally approved.

This legislative session, Senator Paul Boyer did just that and introduced Senate Bill 1014, which sought to bring increased flexibility and accountability into the system. The argument made here is that the increased flexibility of the legislation will help further the purpose of the original voter approved ballot measure because the intent of offering increased flexibility/high quality programs was to help children move out of the ELL classification in a year, which the original ballot language stated.

The major changes in the legislation include a reduction in the SEI time block from four hours to approx. two, which cuts in half the amount of time that students miss critical core instruction in areas such as math or science. The legislation also allows school districts or charters to opt-out of the SEI model and propose their own ELL high quality program to the Arizona State Board of Education. This means that if a school district or charter school wants to instead have its students go through a program like dual language enrollment they now have the ability to present such models for approval instead of being mandated to teach one singular model. Finally, the Arizona Department of Education is required to collect data on the number of students enrolled in an ELL model, the length of time the students are classified as ELL’s, the academic performance of the statewide assessment for students who’ve tested out of the ELL model, and finally the summary of school information relating to the success of English proficiency for English Language Learners. This data collection piece is a major component as the Arizona Department of Education hasn’t historically collected this critical information on a yearly basis.

Our English Language Learning population now has a viable chance to learn the language through high quality programs and through social interaction, something that they didn’t have before. The thanks for this defining legislation goes to Senator Paul Boyer, all the legislators who voted in favor of it, and Governor Ducey who signed the legislation into law. This is policy that will change lives.

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