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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Arizona Conservative Distractions Unwelcome in Minnesota

May 07, 2010 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow
In recent weeks, Minnesota conservative policymakers and activists have repeatedly signaled their approval of Arizona's controversial state immigration reform law. Opinions range from "it's about time" to "it's a good first step," suggesting that we're witnessing the fall election's conservative public policy distraction. Rather than focus on Minnesotan's policy concerns--strong schools, affordable healthcare, robust transportation infrastructure and economic development--conservatives will try to distract Minnesotans with anti-immigration race-baiting.

Couldn't conservatives turn their attention to something more pressing, like the Oxford comma controversy?

The Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma, is placed to distinguish among three or more items. It's a comma typically used before a grammatical conjunction, such as "and," ahead of the final grouped item. "Minnesota 2020 focuses on education, healthcare, transportation, and economic development" employs an Oxford comma to clearly identify the policy issues distinction between "transportation" and "economic development." However, the serial comma's absence wouldn't meaningfully confuse the suggested distinction. "Minnesota 2020 focuses on education, healthcare, transportation and economic development." Admittedly, there is some small chance that a reader might believe that we focus on transportation development rather than transportation policy.
Hence, the raging controversy.

Both sides have their supporters. English language traditionalists tend to support strict Oxford comma guideline adherence while newspaper style guides, rooted in economical use of precious print space, generally oppose the Oxford comma. Although the debate rarely tips into open warfare, otherwise calm language professionals will stop speaking to each other rather than concede the other side's position.

How could conservative policymakers have missed this monumental quarrel? Arizona lawmakers have beaten Minnesota to the punch on this subject, too. Since Minnesota conservatives seem to be falling all over themselves supporting Arizona's new, inarticulate probable-cause law enforcement standard, it's only a matter of time before they advocate for a stricter, Arizona-inspired English mastery standard.

Arizona conservatives can't muster popular support for compelling minimal English language mastery from the general population, at least in any meaningfully constitutional fashion. Consequently, they're picking on the easiest, enforceable, publicly-funded target: teachers.

Arizona passed a state law in 2000 requiring that publicly-funded schools only teach subjects in English. Three years later, with the federal No Child Left Behind law's enactment, Arizona embraced an NCLB-mandated teacher English-language fluency standard that fires teachers unable to meet requirements. Despite the conservative movement's "small government/less government" ideology, Arizona conservatives wasted no time creating an English-language fluency enforcement office within the Arizona Department of Education. It hasn't lacked for work.

Guess which teachers have been the subject of English fluency enforcement attentions? Non-native English speakers. In Arizona, that overwhelmingly means native Spanish-speaking teachers.

Even more ironically, many native Spanish-speaking teachers were specifically recruited to work with Arizona's native Spanish-speaking students, helping students gain rapid, fluent English language mastery. Now, some of those same teachers face termination for failing to meet the Arizona Department of Education's English mastery standard. Skilled teaching, you'll notice, appears to be entirely absent from this debate.
Ideology and policy dogma is more important to conservative policymakers than educating children. In this simple observation, we find the clear intersection between Minnesota and Arizona conservative public policy prescriptions. Attacking teachers and undermining public confidence in the public's schools is a tactical strategy for defunding public education.

I wish that English language debates turned on issues like the serial comma's appropriate use rather than being proxy fights for rigid, ideologically-driven conservative policy schemes. It's important to remember that the Oxford comma is a tool, aiding the writer in articulating clear meaning. Oxford comma discussions, however heated, concern honest, deliberate expression and ambiguity's elimination.

Conservative policy rhetoric, on the other hand, purposefully introduces distraction and artful misdirection. Preserving Governor Pawlenty's no-new-taxes public policy is more important than educating Minnesota's young people. Among Minnesotans, however, public support of schools remains strong, creating the conservative need for distraction. That's where immigrant bashing comes in.

Minnesotans won't be fooled. Prosperity is created from public education's whole cloth. Oxford comma or not, this is no academic discussion. Minnesotans know that moving Minnesota forward requires strong schools, affordable healthcare, robust transportation systems and economic development. Most importantly, Minnesotans know that Arizona may be a nice place to spend the winter, but it's not home.

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