TUCSON, Ariz. - Arizona voters will decide this fall whether to dismantle the state's bilingual education program and require all public school instruction to be in English.
The ballot measure - officially certified Friday as Proposition 203 - was modeled after California's pioneering 1998 initiative. It would place students not fluent in English in an intensive one-year immersion program.
''We're going to give a future to Hispanic children if voters vote for it,'' said Maria Mendoza, co-chairwoman of English for the Children-Arizona, which spearheaded the petition drive. ''It's going to be a different future. They're going to finally learn to speak English, read English and write English.''
An opponent of the effort, lawyer and civil rights activist Isabel Garcia, said the initiative ''would be a travesty for all people of this state.''
''I think people are misinformed and misguided by the proposition,'' she said.
A 1998 poll of 720 Arizona residents by Phoenix-based Behavior Research Center for Mendoza's group found 70 percent support for a ballot measure like Proposition 203. Another 22 percent were opposed. The poll did not distinguish between whether respondents were Hispanic.
California's Proposition 227 passed with 61 percent of the vote. But interpretation of the law varied, with some California school districts going all-English while others kept as much as 40 percent of the day in Spanish. Thousands of parents exercised a loophole letting them request reinstatement of bilingual education. Many schools did drop or revise bilingual programs, however.
Exit polls from the 1998 California vote showed Hispanics, who represented 12 percent of the voter turnout, opposed it by 63 percent.
In Arizona, the latest Department of Education figures available showed 813,000 students in public schools in 1998-99, including 132,000 students in some sort of English acquisition program. The department's survey also found that 200,000 spoke a language other than English at home - 162,000 of them Spanish.
''I personally think it's a very good thing for children to be taught English when they go to school,'' said California millionaire Ron Unz, who led his state's effort and put up about $100,000 for Arizona's signature-gathering effort.
Bilingual education was established by people with the best possible motives, but has failed, he said.
Initiative foe Garcia said that those who complete a bilingual education program are generally high achievers academically and that the proposal would ''punish kids who are not able to speak English.''
Mendoza said she has been fighting to rid the schools of their required bilingual education program for 35 years, arguing that it has done a disservice to Spanish-speaking children.
On the Net:
English for the Children-Arizona: http://www.english-for-the-children-az.org
National Bilingual Education site: http://www.nabe.org
English for the Children: http://www.onenation.org
National Center for Policy Analysis: http://www.ncpa.org/pi/edu/jan98h.html