The bilingual battle
Amendment 31's supporters say students who speak limited English aren't learning
the language; opponents say the law would tie educators' hands
By Berny Morson, Rocky Mountain News
October 7, 2002
Public schools will have to scrap strategies now used to reach children whose
English is limited if voters approve a constitutional amendment Nov. 5.
Under Amendment 31, most of the state's estimated 70,000 non-English-speaking
students would be placed in mainstream classes after one year of immersion in
intensive English instruction.
Those students now are educated under a 1981 state law that gives most school
districts wide latitude in choosing
The amendment pits numerous
educators - including virtually all the
leaders of education organizations -
against critics who charge that current
teaching methods - sometimes in the
child's native language - fail to help
students learn English.
"If you teach them in Spanish, they
don't learn English," said Ron Unz, a California software engineer
who is advising and bankrolling the campaign supporting the
amendment. Students are stuck in bilingual programs for years,
he said, all the while losing ground in academic subjects.
Educators counter that the amendment is based on the simplistic
idea that all students will respond to a year of intense training.
Students have diverse backgrounds and vary widely in the
language skills they bring to school, educators say.
"It's a very complex phenomenon," said University of Colorado
education professor Kathy Escamilla, who studies and has taught
non-English-speaking students for more than 30 years. She
opposes Amendment 31.
"It's just a lie," Escamilla said of the
charge that non-English-speaking
children are relegated to bilingual
The most vehement resistance to
Amendment 31 has been sparked not
by the educational issues, but by
clauses that say teachers and principals
can be sued and held personally liable
for violating the amendment.
Unz, who spearheaded similar
measures in California and Arizona, said
legal consequences are needed to
ensure that the amendment isn't
ignored. Too many schools in his home
state and Arizona have continued to
teach bilingual classes, he says.
Colorado teachers say the threat of
lawsuits is vindictive.
"I don't use the word 'Draconian' much,"
said Colorado Board of Education
member Gully Stanford, who applies
that term to Amendment 31's legal
Drawing the most anger is a provision that permits lawsuits by
parents whose children receive waivers for the intense English
training. The parents can sue school officials up to 10 years later if
they believe the child's education was injured by the decision to
grant a waiver and teach the child in bilingual classes.
"There is considerable exposure for school officials," lawyers for
Denver Public Schools advised in a written opinion that has been
Another clause of the amendment says that school officials can be
sued and forced from their jobs if they "willfully and repeatedly"
refuse to implement Amendment 31.
That clause, which appears in the California version, is less of a
threat because it will be harder to prove, said Denver school
attorney Mary Ellen McEldowney.
Rita Montero, a former Denver school board member and a local
leader of the Amendment 31 drive, said no one has been sued
under the milder California version. She dismisses the issue of
legal threats as a "boogeyman."
Nonetheless, Gov. Bill Owens - among many others - cited the
threat of legal action against educators as a reason for opposing
Born from a boycott
The backlash against bilingual education emerged in Los Angeles
in the mid-1990s among Mexican garment workers who
discovered their children were not learning English, said Christine
Rossell, a Boston University political science professor who
specializes in ethnic and racial issues.
"These garment workers were not only horrified to find their
children were not learning English, but guess what? They couldn't
get them out of the program," said Rossell, who has advised
numerous school districts, including Denver, on bilingual matters.
The parents began boycotting the schools. Enter Unz, who led the
drive for Proposition 227.
Since the initiative passed, the number of California children in
bilingual programs has dropped from about one-third to 11
But some school districts have been quick to grant waivers to
intensive English instruction. In Arizona, where a similar
amendment was passed in 2000, Tucson schools granted waivers
to 50 percent of students learning English.
Still unclear is whether the California law has boosted learning.
Unz said student test scores doubled in California after voters
approved Proposition 227.
But University of California-Berkeley education professor Lily Wong
Fillmore points out that scores have risen across the board. And,
she says, test scores are notoriously difficult to interpret.
Rossell said little is black and white: Students seem to do better
in English under the California law, but all the evidence isn't in.
However, she said, if bilingual education had been a clear-cut
disaster, schools would have dropped it years ago. It is a good
choice for parents who want their children to maintain their
Spanish skills, she said.
Fragmented teaching methods
Because of Colorado's decentralized school system, data on
language-acquisition programs are scant and often contradictory.
Even estimates of the number of students in such programs vary
by several thousand.
Among Colorado students, about 85 different languages are
spoken. Spanish is the native tongue of 85 percent of those who
don't speak English.
Further complicating analysis are variations in how teachers carry
out different educational concepts. Methods with the same name
differ not only from district to district, but from classroom to
classroom, said Flora Camejos-Lenhart, who follows the issue for
the Colorado Department of Education.
"It's terribly fragmented," she said.
The majority of non-English-speaking students are coached by a
language specialist in small groups for one or two periods a day,
but mingle with native English speakers in regular classrooms
most of the time. That strategy is called English as a Second
Fifty-eight percent of the 18,000 students in Denver who are not
proficient in English are in ESL or other English-only programs.
Outside Denver, that number is 71 percent, or 37,000 students.
Other students are taught academic subjects in a combination of
their native language and English. That strategy, called bilingual
education, is meant to keep children from falling behind in math
and social studies while learning English.
Tests such as the Colorado Student Assessment Program are
insufficient to determine how well those methods are working,
Unz said an ESL program heavily steeped in English might meet
the definition of English immersion in Amendment 31. "They
wouldn't have to change anything - they're following the law," he
Because most school districts use ESL, Stanford calls the measure
a solution to a problem that doesn't exist.
But Unz and Montero say many schools are instructing students in
Spanish, despite claims to the contrary. And they think most ESL
programs are a sham, giving students little help beyond the hour
a day of English instruction.
"Teachers may completely ignore them (the rest of the day),"
Sometimes, she said, the opposite occurs - the classroom teacher
spends an inordinate amount of time with the struggling
non-English-speaking student, while the other children fall behind.
Montero is particularly concerned about programs in which
students are taught for the entire day in their native language or
a combination of English and their native tongue.
Montero said "umpteen parents" have complained to her that
their children were placed in bilingual education indefinitely. And
the term "bilingual" is a misnomer, she said.
"It's all Spanish-language instruction," she said. "They're treating
the kids as if they have the English capacity of toddlers."
Montero said students were taught standard subjects in their
native language, but "the curriculum was watered down by at
least one grade."
The parents who spoke to her wanted their children to learn
English - and the sooner the better, Montero said.
"People who come here from Latin America really have no
intentions of going back," she said. "It's important to learn
English, because this is the society the parents realize that they
have to function in."
Moving into the mainstream
Denver school officials deny Montero's charges. They say students
who need language help are taught entirely in English. The rest
receive some of their instruction in English.Parents can opt out of
the bilingual program - and they do, said Assistant
Superintendent Wayne Eckerling. Last year, 2,241 children were
removed from special classes at their parents' request.
"The idea is to move children as quickly as possible into the
mainstream," Eckerling said.
But he and other educators fear that Amendment 31 will push
students into mainstream classrooms before they are fully
For example, a student proficient in English at the end of the
school year could backslide during the summer. Such
under-prepared students could dominate classrooms on Denver's
West Side, where Spanish-speaking students are concentrated,
Eckerling fears. And, under the amendment, those children could
not be coached in their native language.
"They're not supposed to be coached in Spanish - that's the
whole point," Unz says. However, they could go for a second year
of immersion English, he says.
Unlike the rest of the state's school districts, Denver's program is
mandated under a desegregation court order by U.S. District
Judge Richard P. Matsch. Amendment 31 will not apply to Denver
until Matsch lifts his order, a process that could take many years.
But under Matsch's order, the district must prepare children to
learn in English within three years.
The district is meeting that goal, Eckerling said. In the last count,
fewer than 470 students who had been with the district for three
years were not proficient in English, and they're getting extra
attention, he said.
Officials in other districts also are under pressure to move kids
into regular classrooms. Under a 2000 law, children may not be
excused from CSAP tests after three years.
That puts schools at risk of low test scores if students can't speak
English, said Jorge Garcia, who heads language transition
programs for Boulder schools.
"If the program you're using isn't working and you don't change,
you lose your school," Garcia said.
morsonb@RockyMountainNews.com or (303) 892-5072