Feds probing claims of bias against Arizona's non-native English speaking teachers
By Kerry Fehr-Snyder
The Arizona Republic, September 8, 2010
The federal government is investigating whether Arizona has discriminated against teachers who are not native English speakers, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne confirmed Tuesday.
The state Department of Education for years has been monitoring English fluency of teachers who instruct English learners, but in April began instructing districts to fire teachers who weren't proficient in the language.
The probe was launched by the U.S. Department of Justice in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Education.
Hundreds of public-school teachers statewide instruct students who need special assistance in learning English.
Horne said federal officials disclosed details of the investigation in a letter sent to the Arizona Attorney General's Office. Federal officials could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.
Horne predicted that the federal agencies will conclude that the state has done nothing wrong.
'I'm sure they're going to find everything is fine,' Horne said. 'Teachers who are teaching English need to be fluent in English, and if kids can understand what they're saying, it's not an issue.'
At issue is a push by the state Department of Education to get tough on teachers who lack basic English skills or whose grammar is considered so poor that it could detract from children's ability to learn.
Critics of the state's policy have said that it could eliminate talented teachers who have a positive influence on students struggling to learn English and that criticisms of teachers often are based on minor grammatical errors.
Audits by the agency in the past have uncovered examples of teachers who had spoken ungrammatically in class, including a teacher in Phoenix's Creighton Elementary District who asked her kids, 'If you have problems, to who are you going to ask?' As part of that study, state school officials visited 32 districts and found such problems in nine.
Some believe the Arizona Department of Education singled out Latino teachers when it audited classes taught by bilingual teachers, criticizing them for their pronunciation, grammar and not speaking English well.
The federal investigation is the most recent of several aimed at Arizona, which has been in the spotlight for its anti-illegal-immigration law, Senate Bill 1070. Arizona also attracted attention for another law Gov. Jan Brewer signed in May, which banned an ethnic-studies program in Tucson. That prompted a report by U.N. human-rights experts condemning the measure.
In addition to suing Arizona over SB 1070, federal officials have named the state in a federal court case over its programs for English-language learners.
The federal government has brought a case against the Maricopa Community Colleges for asking legal immigrants to show their green cards before employment.
And federal civil-rights officials recently sent a letter to state education officials saying two state practices – identifying which students require English-learning services and for how long – violate federal law.
'It may be that the Senate Bill 1070 issue is causing some sort of campaign, I don't know, by the federal government against Arizona,' Horne said.
Arizona is following the federal 'No Child Left Behind' Act by requiring all children to be fluent in English, including oral and written communication skills, Horne said. That requires teachers to speak and write in English, he said.
'This is common sense,' he said. 'If you want to teach math, you need to know math. If you want to teach English, you need to be fluent in English.'
Teachers are required to prove they are proficient in English before earning a teaching certificate.