'Watchdogs' will monitor Tom Horne on English-only education policy

The Arizona Supreme Court decision finding that Tom Horne didn't receive due process illustrates the need for fundamental administrative law reform.
Yana Kunichoff
Arizona Republic

A group central to limiting Arizona's English-only instruction requirement for English language learners is planning to monitor Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne’s efforts related to the program.

Stand for Children Arizona "is committed to acting as a watchdog organization over Superintendent Horne’s dangerous rhetoric and political theatre moving forward,” the organization said in a statement following remarks Horne made in front of a legislative committee earlier this year about English language learning strategies.

That means looking for any efforts by the administration to change English language learning in a manner that is not in line with laws and regulations, according to the group.

Horne, a Republican, has long advocated for English-only instruction for students learning the language. His January return to the helm of the Arizona Department of Education, following the tenure of Democrat and bilingual education supporter Kathy Hoffman, has renewed a battle over what type of instruction is best for English language learners, who make up about 8% of Arizona's student population, according to October 2022 enrollment data.

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English language learning in Arizona over the years

In 2000, in response to a campaign led in part by Horne’s Deputy Superintendent Margaret Garcia Dugan, voters approved Prop. 203, which repealed previous bilingual education laws and paved the way for lawmakers to require English language learners to be in English immersion classes for four hours each day.

Horne took office in 2003, promising to enforce that mandate.

Critics said his enforcement made it difficult for Spanish-speaking students to transition out of English-only lessons, shut down the option for bilingual education and led students to fall behind academically.

Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne speaks during his ceremonial inauguration at the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023.

Following complaints from immigrant parents, Stand for Children Arizona raised concerns about the impact of the English-only instruction program on students. In 2019, after years of advocacy, then-Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill drafted by Republican legislators cutting the mandated four hours of English immersion down to two hours and giving school districts flexibility to design their own programs for English language learners, expanding opportunities for bilingual education.

The State Board of Education subsequently adopted four English language learning models and created a pathway for school districts and charter schools to submit a proposal for other approaches. 

That legislative change limits how Horne can now enforce English-only education, according to Stand for Children.

“Legally, there is not a lot of authority here. He doesn’t have the authority he thinks he has,” said Executive Director Rebecca Gau. It’s within the state board’s authority to approve the teaching models developed in response to the law, she said.

But, she said, “there’s not going to be a lot of appetite to sue a superintendent over something like this.” That means advocacy groups must play a role in highlighting any misuse of Horne’s power, she said.

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Horne: 'A lot of conferences to train teachers'

So far, Horne has said he will increase teacher training about English language learning, which is firmly in the superintendent's administrative realm. He said he wants "a lot of conferences to train teachers in how to teach English to English language learners so they can succeed in their academics and the economy."

Horne and immigrant student advocates agree that English language learners are not performing well in Arizona’s schools.

Arizona’s English language learners dropped 10 points in fourth-grade math from 2019 to 2022 and had a gap of 38 points from native English speakers, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card. Arizona's state test last year showed that about 5% of English language learners passed the third-grade reading assessment.

Horne said he thinks test scores have declined since 2019 because of the shift away from English immersion.

But Gau said English language learners have struggled since the English immersion law was passed, and more recent test results reflect the pandemic's impacts. Remotely teaching the complicated mechanics of literacy is a challenge, even with consistent internet access and things happening at home that could get in the way of learning, she said.

Gau said she would like to see Horne bring together stakeholders to identify best practices for teaching English language learners.

Since Horne was last in the superintendent's office more than a decade ago, increasing interest from non-immigrant families in dual-language education helped prompt California and Massachusetts to repeal their limits on bilingual education.

Yet Arizona's English immersion law remains on the books, even as many school districts now offer dual language immersion to benefit students raised speaking only English.

“That’s an attraction for their school districts,” said Arizona Education Association president Marisol Garcia.

Beyond Stand for Children, other advocacy groups will also watch Horne's moves on English language learning.

Stephanie Parra, executive director of ALL In Education, an organization that aims to increase the number of Latino education leaders in Arizona, said she would like to see an Arizona educational system that views speaking two languages as an asset, not a deficit. Her organization runs a program called the "Parent Educator Academy" to educate parents about Arizona's education system so they "have agency over decisions that affect their families and communities," according to the ALL In Education website.

Reyna Montoya, who experienced Arizona's earlier English immersion requirements as a student, founded the community group Aliento to support immigrant students. She is working on ensuring that undocumented students can access college tuition and that students don’t leave public education with the idea that their efforts to learn English are a sign they aren't intelligent.

“They’ve been internalizing that feeling,” said Montoya. “I’ve been able to have those conversations without our students and hold space and validate them: Of course, you’re not dumb. Of course, your friends are not dumb.”

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Yana Kunichoff is a reporter on The Arizona Republic's K-12 education team. You can reach her at or follow her on Twitter @yanazure.

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