Colorado Upholds the Right to Bilingual Education
By Padres Unidos
DENVER, COLO. —On November 5, 2002, a broad-based alliance of grassroots
organizations, individuals, churches, unions, elected officials, and coalitions
united to defeat Ron Unz’s “English for the Children” initiative.
Nationally, this was the first time Unz’s initiative was defeated as a ballot
issue. Ron Unz, chair of English for the Children, is a California
multimillionaire software developer and former Republican candidate for
governor. Unz launched a national movement to eliminate bilingual education
across the country by amending state constitutions, with the ultimate goal being
to amend the Constitution of the United States. He also spearheaded the defeat
of bilingual education in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts, but his
xenophobic anti-immigrant campaign met with fierce resistance in Colorado.
On November 5, more than 56 percent of all Colorado voters opposed the
anti-bilingual amendment and voted “No on 31.”
Among other things, the amendment to the Constitution would have given all
students only nine months to learn English before
being placed into all-English classes. For many, this would mean a lifetime of
being illiterate. And therein lies the importance of
“holding the line” on bilingual education and defeating the likes of Ron Unz:
Illiteracy and inequity in education translates into political
and economic apartheid for millions of immigrant students.
CONDITIONS IN COLORADO
Historically, Colorado is a conservative state and has a weak track record
concerning bilingual education and language rights.
Denver’s public schools, with the largest bilingual student population, have
been under a court ordered decree since 1984
— demanding compliance with federal policy on bilingual education. They remain
out of compliance to this day. In 1987,
voters passed an “English Is the Official Language of the State of Colorado”
amendment to the constitution, mandating all state
business be done in “English only.” In 1992, a complaint filed by Padres Unidos
with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) resulted in
the Denver Public Schools being found guilty of “Discrimination Based on Race in
Bilingual Education.” Because of the OCR
findings and the creation of dual-language schools across the state, Colorado
received national attention and became a target for local and national
anti-bilingual proponents. It was in this context that Ron Unz chose to target
Colorado for his anti-bilingual “English for the Children” campaign.
TAILORING THE MESSAGE
Critical to the success of the campaign was everyone’s ability to unite around
“No on 31” while also recognizing the need to
approach various constituencies differently. In other words, depending on their
conditions and concerns, different groups were
approached with different reasons for voting against Amendment 31.
To defeat the amendment, it was essential to win over white middle-class voters.
Our message was that the measure was too
punitive because teachers could be personally sued for speaking Spanish in the
classroom; too costly, because it would involve
starting new programs; and too restrictive because it would have eliminated
dual-language programs and parent choice. These
points appeared in yard signs, on TV and radio — thanks to a $3 million donation
by a generous parent whose daughter attends a
dual-language public school in Northern Colorado. There is no question that the
resources brought forth by this mother had a
tremendous impact on the movement to win the campaign.
To win over the Latino and African-American communities, we helped them
understand that the right to bilingual education is a
part of the struggle for democracy and justice.
When the question of bilingual education was connected to becoming literate,
being able to vote, and equal access to education, members of the
African-American community could easily relate to the issue and see it as their
own. One person pointed out how in the past, slaves caught learning how to read
could be killed or have their tongues cut out.
For the immigrant community, it was important to connect the amendment to the
recent raids and deportations taking place in
their communities. There were many discussions connecting the amendment to
Latinos’ right to maintain their native language and
In the Black community, Padres participated in discussions on the need for
African Americans and Latinos coming together to defeat
31. In Colorado, schools are an equal opportunity failure for both
African-American and Latino students. Both suffer from high
suspensions and expulsions with disproportionate representations in our prison
Despite Unz’s contention that he had the support of the Latino community,
Amendment 31 was overwhelmingly defeated in every
Latino majority district throughout the state.
English Plus was a Denver-based coalition that emerged to defeat Ron Unz’s
English for the Children. With the help of political
consultants, the mainstream political message evolved: “Too Costly, Too
Punitive, Too Restrictive.” However, some people
involved in community organizing in Denver and from around the state raised the
need to approach communities of color on
different ground — and felt that the main campaign pitch would not appeal to or
win over Latino and African-American voters.
There were highly charged discussions and debates on this issue. Many English
Plus members maintained that putting anything out
publicly other than the “Too Costly, Too Punitive, Too Restrictive” would lose
the critical white vote. Others claimed that not
connecting this amendment to the struggle and issues of Latinos and African
Americans would conversely result in losing needed
votes from communities of color.
Out of this debate another group emerged: La Gente Coalition. Some organizations
and individuals felt it was important to have a
forum for framing the work differently in communities of color, and wanted an
open and supportive environment in which to create
strategies to do so. Even with their differences, the two groups were able to
work together to defeat Unz by agreeing on the
following guidelines for both coalitions in the work:
Everyone would honor the mainstream campaign message in front of the press;
People could frame the messages differently in communities of color; and
There would be open lines of communication and collaboration between the two
groups regarding presentations and events.
Many grassroots efforts helped to contribute to the defeat of Amendment 31
across the state. Members of Padres and Jovenes
Unidos (the youth component of Padres Unidos) dedicated weekends throughout the
fall to walking their neighborhoods with
flyers, talking with people, registering voters door-to-door, and distributing
information at their churches. At one housing project,
volunteers registered more than 75 first-time voters. In their schools, students
made classroom presentations to raise awareness and gain support for the
campaign. People marched and spoke at rallies, gave interviews, and appeared on
Spanish-language TV to explain how the amendment would affect the immigrant
community. Students also organized a community forum and debate at their high
We feel we learned a number of lessons in defeating Amendment 31 in Colorado:
We must build broad-based coalitions and unifying entities to defeat such
Different messages will resonate with different nationalities and groups of
people, and we should not negate one for the other;
We need to consciously build unity by educating one another on the reasons for
coming together to defeat such attacks; and
While we need to immediately defend the right to bilingual education and defeat
backwards initiatives such as Amendment 31, we also need to see this organizing
as part of building a movement for the long haul that has the capacity to take
up future struggles for language rights and educational justice for all.
Padres Unidos is an 11-year-old organization based in Denver, Colorado that
organizes parents and students of color to fight for
educational equity and justice. Padres enables parents and students to analyze
conditions, create solutions and develop strategies that result in implementing
institutional change and reform.
For more information contact Padres Unidos at 303-458-6545 or firstname.lastname@example.org.