States ponder ESL limits in schools

English-as-a-second-language teacher Xavier Chavez teaches a summer history class this year at Benson High School in Portland, Ore. Oregon voters will consider a ballot measure in November that proposes a limit on the amount of time students can spend in ESL classes.

? In a high school classroom, Xavier Chavez is trying to teach teenagers about Manifest Destiny – the 19th-century belief that the United States was divinely fated to stretch from sea to shining sea.

But these students are children of immigrants, and they first have to learn English. They might soon have to learn it faster if Oregon voters approve a ballot measure in November to limit the amount of time students can spend in English-as-a-second-language classes.

The proposal, modeled after similar laws in California, Arizona and Massachusetts, is one of a handful of immigration-related ballot measures appearing this fall on state and local ballots.

“We call it the battle of the states,” said William Gheen, president of the North Carolina-based group Americans for Legal Immigration.

A year ago, groups that were against illegal immigration had hoped to push the topic front-and-center in the presidential campaign.

But the once-explosive issue has simmered down nationally, particularly since both major presidential candidates have endorsed a “path to citizenship” for the country’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.

Now the immigration battles in November will be fought on ballots in Oregon, Missouri and California.

There are 64,000 non-English speakers enrolled in Oregon’s public schools, the vast majority of whom are Spanish speakers. The proposal would limit high school students to two years of ESL classes, even less for younger students.

Chavez and his fellow teachers acknowledge that most of their students pick up colloquial English within two years. Faculty members worry about academic English in advanced classes.

The Oregon initiative is “just a diversion to the real problems,” Chavez said. “We are not looking at what English language learners need.”

Chavez’s students have mixed feelings about the proposal, partly depending on future goals. Carlos Perez, 17, thought limiting ESL to just two years would be no problem for him or his friends.

But Beatriz Munoz, 16, who said she wants to be a doctor or a lawyer, disagreed.

“I am worried; what if I don’t understand?” said Munoz, who is transferring to a private Catholic school with a strong academic reputation. “I have to go to college.”

Long-term studies have shown that full mastery of academic English takes five to seven years, said Dr. Jim Cummins, a professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in second language acquisition and literacy development.

But Bill Sizemore, sponsor of the Oregon measure and an anti-tax activist who was the GOP’s gubernatorial nominee in 1998, said the measure was intended to help immigrants, not sideline them. He said schools warehouse their students in ESL courses longer than necessary to keep federal and state money flowing.

Voters in Arizona approved a similar measure in 2000. Since then, there’s been no reduction in the dropout rate, and no evidence that ESL students are doing any better on standardized tests, said Beth Witt, who is involved in Arizona’s ESL organization.

In Missouri, voters will decide whether to make English the only language of state government. Passage of the measure would affect ballots, drivers’ license exams and other documents. Similar laws are in place in 30 other states.

In California, Proposition 6 would eliminate bail for illegal immigrants charged with violent or gang-related felonies, and require sheriffs to inform federal immigration officials when illegal immigrants are arrested.