The controversy surrounding Arizona's new immigration law enforcement may impact non-native teachers in the classroom. The state's Department of Education recently started telling individual school districts that teachers with accented or grammatically incorrect English would need to be reassigned from classes for English language learners.
Education officials in Arizona claim the effort is meant to ensure that students with low English language abilities are being taught by educators who speak the language flawlessly. However, local school staff believes the Department's demand imposes what could be arbitrary fluency standards which would be a disservice to students by removing experienced teachers.
The entire affair comes at a time when Arizona is in the national spotlight concerning the increasingly heated debate over immigration law. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer recently signed in a new immigration enforcement law that would give local police the power to reinforce existing federal law to perform on-the-spot immigration checks, igniting heated responses from both sides of the debate.
Opponents of the new law say that Arizona state education officials have been emboldened to target immigrant teachers during this time of widespread budget crises and forced layoffs. Some view the new restrictions on immigrant teachers as further evidence of anti-immigrant sentiment in a state with a porus southern border. Supporters claim that critics are only politicizing the education environment at a time when crime in Mexico is heating up. State officials deny discrimination against immigrant, Spanish speaking teachers, citing that the best interest of students is in mind.
During the 1990s, Arizona brought in hundreds of teachers with Spanish as their first language to broaden bilingual-educations programs, with many of those teachers being recruited from Latin America. In 2000 Arizona residents voted in a ballot measure mandating instruction to be in English only, forcing these recently recruited bilingual teachers to switch from Spanish.
The Department of Education in Arizona is now sending out auditors to gauge the English of its teachers in areas such as comprehensible pronunciation, correct grammar usage, and writing proficiency. Teachers that do not meet the standards of the Department may take classes to improve their English skills, but if fluency remains a problem they may face reassignment to another class or at worst being fired.
Around 12.5%, or 150,000, of Arizona's 1.2 million public school students are classified as English language learners.
Interestingly, the concern over non-native English speaking teachers is not unique to Arizona. Nearly twenty years ago a proposal was floated in Westfield, Massachusetts that would have banned accented teachers from elementary classrooms where students were still learning English. The proposal was deemed to violate the state's anti-discrimination laws, and never took effect.
Even though times have changed, it seems Arizona's education policymakers are not afraid of being accused of discrimination as much as they are of issues related to illegal immigration. The policymakers may be unaware or less concerned with a recent study conducted in Israel and published by the Journal of Psycholinguistic Studies that says students learn a second language more easily from a teacher with the same accent. The students have an easier time understanding their similarly accented teacher as they do not have to concentrate on understanding the English in a different accent from their own.
Even with this study's results out there, Arizona is pressing ahead with their new teaching regulations in a climate of renewed enforcment of federal immigration law. Many Arizona teachers who use English as their second language or speak with an accent are naturally worrying about their job security now that word has spread across the state about the new policies.