Editorial: Don't override the election results
Rocky Mountain News November 13, 2002
Amendment 31 on bilingual education failed in Colorado; legislators with a
decent respect for the opinions of voters should not be rushing in to change the
Rep. Richard Decker, R-Fountain, says he is working on a bill that would make
English immersion the standard method for teaching students who enter school
with limited English proficiency. He may well come up with a more sensible
version of that plan than the initiative sponsored by Ron Unz, but the fact
remains that voters said no to Unz's plan and no one knows whether they would
have approved a measure with the same goals but fewer defects.
Consider what's likely to happen in Massachusetts, where the Unz bilingual
measure, there called Question 2, passed by better than 2-to-1. Legislators
there are already declaring their intention to modify the new law, and
Governor-elect Mitt Romney said during the campaign that he would support
changes. Defying voters like that is simply arrogant. It would be here too.
The acrimonious debate over Amendment 31 did reveal, however, a considerable
amount of confusion over terminology and a lack of good data on what's being
done now. We know that roughly a third of English-language learners in Colorado
are in programs that use their native language for instruction in subjects such
as math. These are usually called bilingual programs. But "roughly" is the
operative word. Perhaps as much as 10 percent of that group is in dual-immersion
programs, a small number but politically significant. Pat Stryker, who donated
$3 million to the anti-31
campaign, did so in part to protect a dual-immersion school in Fort Collins.
Of the remaining two-thirds, most are in regular classes for most of the day but
attend special English classes for one or two periods. Some are in full
immersion programs, where they focus exclusively on learning English until they
are ready to move into regular classrooms. Others elect to receive no special
services. How many? We don't know. Some districts, the state Department of
Education says, don't provide a detailed breakdown of
There are further complications. Children whose native language is Spanish are
much more likely to be in bilingual programs than those who speak less common
languages. And Denver is unlike other districts because its programs are subject
to a court order.
Districts should be required to provide data in a standardized form that allows
for comparisons among districts and compilation of statewide data. If
legislation is needed to give the education department authority to standardize
terminology and to require reporting, then it should be passed.
Parents should also get better information about the programs. One option that
Denver parents can check is, "I want my child to receive support in Spanish,
while learning English, if offered at this school." Who wouldn't want that? But
would you realize it meant classes taught mostly in Spanish? Parents who want to
ensure that their children aren't sidetracked into bilingual classes have to
choose the option "no instruction in Spanish." That's misleading, too.
We're relieved Amendment 31 didn't pass. The task now is to improve the teaching
of English enough in this state so that we don't see an encore of the amendment