Written by Bella Wexler, Communications Fellow at the American Immigration Council.

As of 2023, Arizona remains the only state with English-only education legislation still in effect. Its law—Proposition 203—exemplifies the ongoing impact of the American English-only education movement that poses obstacles to equitable education for English language learners (ELLs), especially immigrants.

The American English-only education movement refers to assimilationist pressure against bilingual and native language instruction for ELL students in the United States.

The History of English-Only Education

The movement has deep roots that date back to the country’s founding, starting with Benjamin Franklin’s crusade to promote Anglo-Saxon dominance over German immigrants in the colonies.

It has since resurfaced in many forms across U.S. history. It was employed in the forced assimilation of Native American children, the expropriation of Spanish-speakers following California’s cession to the U.S. in the Mexican-American War, and the outlawing of foreign language education following the World War I arrival of eastern-European immigrants.

Supporters of English-only education often claim to help immigrants access the American Dream—despite its history of favoring Anglican hegemony. Research into the post-World War I English-only education wave finds that monolingual education was largely ineffective. In actuality, rates of immigrant citizenship, military enlistment, and employment “were basically unmoved by English-Only requirements.”

How English-Only Education Impacts Students Today

80 years later, laws have continued to emerge in several states championing the monolingual model: California’s Proposition 227, Arizona’s Proposition 203, and Massachusetts’s Question 2. These initiatives all claimed to assimilate ELLs quickly and benevolently despite receiving strong backing from anti-immigrant agendas.

Stephanie Champi, a former Boston Public Schools teacher and a 2016 Teach for America Corps Member, experienced firsthand the challenges of educating under Question 2 in Massachusetts. Especially in subjects like math where the importance of language tends to be undervalued, there is no guarantee of the kind of support that ELLs will receive.

Champi’s students had more than 5 different native languages. Most immigrated from Spanish-speaking countries or those with similar linguistic foundations. Because of commonalities between their native languages of Spanish and Portuguese Creole, some students found ways to “understand one another and form relationships even without an initial common language.”

Champi believes in the importance of English education to prepare non-native speakers for success in the U.S. However, establishing “a classroom that is a safe place to take risks and learn” is essential to accomplishing this and, approaching school in a new language “is terrifying and alienating at first.”

English-only education also poses issues of accessibility. In her school that required students to read while their teachers transitioned between classrooms, the lack of foreign language books disadvantaged ELL students. “This means that a child is going to sit looking at a book at a level of English proficiency that they can’t currently access, but it is the only option to be compliant in following the given direction.”

Champi found that embracing students’ native languages while teaching English was beneficial. “I often felt it was valuable to empower my students with more English proficiency to work with students with less language proficiency so that they could communicate with one another in both English and Spanish.” This way, she says, it would continue “their development of both English and their native language, which we know increases the success of understanding and mastery in both languages.”

Arizona’s Proposition 203

Since Champi’s time teaching in Boston, both Massachusetts and California have already overturned their English-only laws. So, what’s holding Arizona back? Repealing Prop. 203 has received widespread bipartisan support, with Apache Junction Republican Rep. John Fillmore’s 2019 ballot referral proposals gaining committee approval in both chambers but never coming to a vote in the Senate. In 2020, his proposal was unanimously supported by the Education Committee but held up in the Rules committee.

A 2019 poll found that only 24% of responding Arizona voters favor keeping Prop. 203 in effect. 67% would prefer a switch to dual-language immersion in the classroom. However, since the 2020 failure at repeal, efforts at doing away with Prop. 203 seem largely abandoned in favor of prioritizing other pressing initiatives such as tuition equity for undocumented students, which was approved through a ballot initiative in November 2022.

Since the institution of Prop. 203 in 2000, ELLs in Arizona have suffered. Their graduation rates are nearly 20% below the national average, while their standardized test scores fall far below those of the state’s general population. This setback could follow them well into adulthood. Despite the research results and repeals of Prop. 227 in California and Question 2 in Massachusetts, Arizona ELL students are still largely excluded from bilingual education programs.

Of English-only education laws, Champi says that, ultimately, “these policies come from a place of xenophobia.” And if there is anything history can teach us, it’s that “regardless of the legislation, it is imperative that students have access to the ELL services that we know pedagogically are best for their language development in all subjects.”