By Melissa Alter.
The 50-50 Model
Earlier this year, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne challenged the future of dual language programs in Arizona’s public school system. On June 19, Horne threatened to withhold funding from schools that use the 50-50 dual language model to teach English to students who lack proficiency in the language, known as English Language Learners. Under this model, schools teach English Language Learners in English for half the day and in their native language—typically Spanish—for the other half.
The 50-50 model was one of four strategies approved by the Arizona State Board of Education to teach English Language Learners. Dual language programs are becoming increasingly prominent in Arizona schools; in the 2021-2022 school year, English Language Learners comprised approximately 8.5% of students in Arizona. Now, over 110 schools across 26 school districts risk losing their funding over Horne’s challenge.
Horne argues that 50-50 dual language models violate state law. He points to a recent memo written by attorneys at the State Legislature stating that the model “likely violates” the English Language Education for Public Schools Initiative, or Proposition 203.
Proposition 203 was a citizen-initiated ballot measure that amended state law. It was approved in 2000 with 63% of the vote. Under the statute, English Language Learners are required to participate in an intensive one-year English immersion program; schools cannot provide instruction in their native languages. Parents can sign a waiver exempting their child from this immersion program if they show that their child is knowledgeable in English, over ten years old, or has special needs. The statute also allows parents and guardians to bring lawsuits against schools who do not abide by these requirements.
Horne contends that schools who use the 50-50 model violate Proposition 203 because they teach English Language Learners in a non-English language. He clarified that his challenge to schools would not eliminate dual language programs entirely. Rather, it would require English Language Learners to be taught solely in structured English immersion classes, while students proficient in English would still be eligible for dual language programs. If a district violates Proposition 203, then, according to Horne, the district should lose access to English Language Learner funds.
Horne’s declaration was met with immediate pushback. In July, nearly 3,000 Arizonians signed a petition opposing the English immersion model. Advocates argue that Horne’s policy discriminates against non-English speakers by requiring them, unlike English speakers, to prove competency in another language before being eligible to participate in dual language programs. They also point to studies showing that full immersion may lead to worse outcomes in other subjects such as math and science. Moreover, it may increase the risks of psychological setbacks including anxiety and depression. Additionally, opponents of immersion claim that the program falls short of its stated goal, since many English Language Learners are held back and forced to repeat the program because they still lack proficiency at the end of the year-long immersion.
In addition to these policy concerns, opponents contend that Horne’s argument fails because Proposition 203 was preempted by SB 1014. The 2019 law reduced the minimum amount of time that English Language Learners must spend in English immersion programs from four to two hours. SB 1014 also allowed the State Board of Education to adopt dual language methods such as the 50-50 model. To proponents of dual language education for English Language Learners, this statute clearly renders Horne’s argument void. While Horne acknowledged that the reduction in structured English immersion from four to two hours was valid, he argued that English Language Learners must still spend the remainder of the day in English-speaking classrooms.
However, Horne faces another challenge to eliminating 50-50 programs for English Language Learners. According to a recent opinion by Attorney General Kris Mayes, even if the schools violate Proposition 203 under the current model, the Superintendent lacks the authority to withhold state funding. Mayes, a Democrat, noted that Horne can only report noncompliance to the State Board of Education, which has already indicated that it won’t punish schools that use the 50-50 model.
Horne, a Republican, has since denounced Mayes’ position, claiming that her opinion amounts to a threat. He argued that her reasons are ideologically motivated and accused her of ignoring the will of Arizona voters. Moreover, Horne noted that Mayes never stated that the 50-50 model abides by Proposition 203 or that Proposition 203 has since been superseded. Instead, she merely contended that he lacks the authority to challenge the existing system. Horne points to Mayes’s refusal to discuss the merits of his argument as proof that the law is on his side.
Dual Language Going Forward
Horne’s challenge to the existing English Language Learner system has been a major talking point since he took office earlier this year. He has made clear that he intends to pursue this lawsuit, stating that “this will obviously be resolved in the courts.” Until then, schools using 50-50 dual language programs will still be entitled to receive state funds. However, Horne urged parents to sue schools that adopt dual language programs without waivers. As the debate continues and Horne’s court challenge looms, the future for English Language Learners in dual language programs remains in question.
By Melissa Atler
J.D. Candidate, 2025
Melissa Alter is a 2L Staff Writer on the Arizona State Law Journal. Prior to law school, she double majored in Psychology and Political Science at Rice University in Houston, Texas. Although Melissa’s areas of interest change bimonthly, right now, she is interested in Education and Election Law. In her free time, she enjoys playing board games, watching theater, and showing off pictures of her dog.