Original URL: http://www.denverpost.com/Stories/0,1413,36%257E25570%257E972830%257E,00.html
Bilingual ban fails
By Eric Hubler
Until Colorado, every place he tried to snuff bilingual education by ballot initiative, Ron Unz won by a landslide.
But Amendment 31, the Colorado version of the "English for the Children" initiatives Unz has been placing on state ballots since 1998, went down to defeat Tuesday night.
"That is good news," said Denver schools chief Jerry Wartgow.
Wartgow and the Denver school board asked voters to reject the measure, which would have banned native-language support for immigrant pupils and mandated one year of English immersion.
"I'm proud of the Colorado voters for being educated and learning about the flawed details in this amendment," said Wendy DeBell, president of the Cherry Creek school board. "This would have left many children behind because nine months is not adequate time for most kids to learn English."
Amendment 31 started with a commanding lead in polls. At first it looked like the outcome would be a repeat of California in 1998 and Arizona in 2000, where similar initiatives won easily.
A fourth such measure, in Massachusetts, won by nearly 2-to-1 Tuesday, according to The Associated Press.
But Unz's opponents in Colorado had something their counterparts in the other states didn't: an angry heiress. Pat Stryker, whose daughter attends a public dual-language school in Fort Collins, gave $3 million to English Plus, the group formed to fight the amendment.
Stryker is the granddaughter of Homer Stryker, founder of Michigan medical-equipment company Stryker Corp.
The campaign used the gift to place TV ads claiming the amendment would cost school districts tens of millions of dollars a year to implement. That claim turned out to be based on an erroneous article in a Boulder newspaper, but English Plus let the ad run for a day after admitting the error to The Denver Post.
"What they did was go to the voters and lie to them and tell them we were going to raise their taxes," said Rita Montero, Unz's Colorado coordinator.
The Stryker-financed ads brought a dramatic change of fortune for Amendment 31. As opinion polls showed voters turning against the measure, Unz and Montero started using words such as "liars," "vampires" and "racists" to describe their opponents.
A pro-amendment radio ad with former Gov. Dick Lamm may have brought some voters back. Lamm said he felt badly about supporting bilingual education decades ago and would vote for Amendment 31 to atone.
But Lamm also told The Post he would feel badly about one of the amendment's effects: making it harder for Spanish-speaking parents to send their children to dual-language schools like the one Stryker's daughter attends.
Lamm said he likes dual-language schools, and that if the amendment passed, he would work to help them overcome provisions of Amendment 31 that educators said would prevent them from enrolling Spanish speakers.
School districts, elected officials and candidates of all parties asked voters to reject the amendment. They said that even if other states bungled bilingual education, Colorado figured out years ago that local districts know local families' needs best.
Most Colorado districts already use immersion-like techniques with English learners, they said.
"It would have just complicated our situation and cost us more money to do the very thing we're already doing," said Littleton Superintendent Stan Scheer.
Montero accused opponents of only wanting to preserve their jobs. "Their whole campaign was about defending teachers, and it wasn't about kids," she said.
But Denver's Wartgow said his district is making honest efforts to improve how it serves immigrants, particularly Hispanics, who have higher dropout rates and lower test scores than other groups.
"We've said all along that we share the underlying goal of Amendment 31, and that's to teach English to those who come to us speaking other languages, and we'll continue to sharpen that program within our district," Wartgow said.
Unz said his Massachusetts win will make lawmakers take note. "I really hope in the very near future Congress will take a look at this issue," he said.
Montero said that if educators persist in using Spanish in classrooms, "they'll be in a lot of trouble again."