Sunday, October 13, 2002
An old joke has it that "bilingual" is a word that means "does not speak
English." The joke was inspired by the manifest failures of the nation's
bilingual education programs. These programs often consigned children to years
of separate instruction in their native language. When transferred to classes
taught in English, many of these students were so far behind, they couldn't
Voters will have the opportunity Nov. 5 to officially abandon this failed
educational experiment by voting for Amendment 31. A similar measure is on the
Massachusetts ballot this year, and two other states - California and Arizona -
have already mandated English language instruction.
Amendment 31 requires that, with rare exceptions, so-called English learners be
taught in English. The proposed model is a year or less of what is called
"English immersion," or intense language instruction.
Opponents have employed two questionable approaches. The first is an attempt to
convince Coloradans that bilingual education isn't a failure. Mass hypnosis may
be the only way to sell this belief. Recently published dropout figures for
Hispanic students show the rates here are considerably above the national
average, and it simply defies logic to now claim that the answer to this
deplorable record is an increased dosage of "more of the same."
The second approach is to chant certain slogans over and over again as if the
words in these slogans contained some mystical, magical meaning. The slogans are
"parental choice" and "local control." Local control is a concept imbedded in
the state constitution, but Amendment 31 does not eliminate local control
of instruction. It simply requires that a failed technique not be employed. It
leaves plenty of room for a local district to devise ways to teach its "English
learners." As for parental choice, when has it been a rule that parents can
require school districts to operate instruction programs that are manifest
A number of the amendment's opponents, including Gov. Bill Owens, have cited a
single provision in the amendment and labeled it a "fatal flaw."
The governor is mistaken and is ignoring the very important matter of how to
make sure that individual administrators and teachers don't undermine the
amendment's purpose. In California some administrators have simply decided to
subvert the law by continuing to offer bilingual instruction to students who
clearly are not intended to receive it. In fact, bilingual instruction has been
reduced by only about two-thirds, leaving tens of thousands of students still
attending classes. These educators, by the way, make no secret of the fact that
they seek to avoid the dictates of the law.
What to do?
The sponsors of Amendment 31 included language that makes individual teachers
and administrators financially liable if they grant, "in error," the request of
parents who ask to have their children enrolled in bilingual classes. This is
not, as opponents suggest, a Draconian provision. The amendment is clear.
Exceptions to "English immersion" are to be rare. Only three categories of
students can request a waiver. Administrators, school board members and teachers
can easily avoid problems by following the law. A parent who files suit would
have to prove both that the waiver they received was granted "in error" and that
the student suffered actual harm as a result. These aren't easy burdens to carry
in court. Importantly, without some enforcement provisions, administrators,
board members and teachers would be virtually
invited to undermine the intent of the amendment.
Opponents will not be using any of their considerable war chest explaining to
voters why Hispanic students are unable to master English when exposed to
intensified English instruction. The implication that this group can't learn
English and master recognized educational standards is an implication rightly
resented by Hispanic and non-Hispanic citizens alike.
Failed educational programs, like bilingual instruction, have no right to
eternal life. Coloradans have every right to dictate how taxes should be spent
and can rest assured that it is entirely possible to have parental choice, local
control of education and Amendment 31 all at the same time.
Al Knight (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a member of the Denver Post editorial
column appears Wednesday and Sunday.