Editorial: Bilingual amendment too flawed to pass
Rocky Mountain News
September 30, 2002
Back in California, Ron Unz had a pretty good idea about bilingual
education. If children enter American schools knowing so little
English that they can't make sense of what's going on in class,
then teaching them English should be the schools' top priority.
But the version of that pretty good idea that Unz has brought to
Colorado as Amendment 31 is more punitive than constructive.
And worse, he wants to put it in the state constitution, so that
even its worst provisions will be completely inflexible without
another constitutional amendment. The constitution is the wrong
place for such highly specific treatment of technical issues.
We actually wanted to support this proposal. We agree that
children who can't speak English should in almost all cases start
their schooling in classes dedicated to teaching them English.
Such classes are often called "sheltered immersion" - "immersion,"
because they are entirely in English, and "sheltered," because the
class is tailored to their level of knowledge. Most children will be
ready for regular classes after no more than a year of sheltered
immersion, as the amendment assumes.
The amendment's goal is to end an alternative model called
"transitional bilingual education," in which children learning
English spend most of their school day studying subjects in their
native language, and study English for a small part of the day.
Unz points out, correctly, that many researchers who support
transitional programs believe they should last an altogether
ridiculous five to seven years.
Colorado's policy aims for no more than three years, but delaying
even that long puts children at a disadvantage in their education.
Their English need not be perfect when they make the switch, but
it will improve much faster if they use it six hours a day rather
than one or two.
So why do we oppose Amendment 31, besides the fact that it
doesn't belong in the constitution?
Because parents who request a waiver to enroll their children in
alternative programs will have virtually no chance of getting one -
even though some waivers, especially for older students, are
entirely appropriate. The amendment not only provides that
principals and superintendents who issue waivers will be
personally liable for lawsuits up to 10 years later, it also prevents
them from insuring themselves against that risk.
Sheltered immersion works, but it's not the only model for learning
English. With waivers so difficult to get, the others may simply
Most transitional programs, for practical reasons, are in Spanish.
But children who speak other languages are often in programs
where they take regular classes in English but get extra help in
English one or two periods a day. Where those are working, there
is no reason to replace them with immersion classes. And indeed,
it's not clear how immersion could even be provided in many
smaller districts that have at most a handful of immigrant children.
And then there are dual-immersion programs such as Ana Marie
Sandoval in Denver, which aim to make all their students fluently
bilingual. The amendment would make half of those schools'
students - the ones learning English - ineligible for the program
Gully Stanford, a member of the state Board of Education who
opposes the amendment, says it would require a whole new
series of tests for English-language learners; Unz says it wouldn't.
In fact, they seem to agree on hardly any details of what the
amendment says. If it becomes part of the constitution, having to
resolve ambiguities and correct unintended consequences will be
all but impossible.
Yes, English proficiency should be a top priority. But this rigid and
punitive measure is not the way to go about it.