Campaign against 31 based on distortions
By Al Knight
Denver Post Columnist
Wednesday, October 23, 2002
The well-financed opponents of this year’s English-language education
amendment have decided not to defend the existing bilingual instruction program
that is widely recognized as an instructional failure. They have instead floated
a series of bogus claims suggesting the corrective provisions of the amendment
would deprive non-English-speaking students of instruction, punish innocent,
well-meaning teachers and increase the taxes of every Colorado voter.
Now, it is true that initiative campaigns have never been models of scholarly
debate, but even by historical standards,
this year’s campaign against Amendment 31 is setting records for deceit and
It is eerily similar to earlier campaigns involving school vouchers, and no
wonder. In each case, the educational establishment rallied together to make
sure that the taxpayers wouldn’t start to think they actually had some say in
public schools operate. This year the education wagons have been circled again
to make sure that no one interferes in how
tens of thousands of non-English-speaking students are taught.
The campaign of distortion has three components, each more questionable than the
The first is that the amendment will deprive students of needed instruction. The
opposite is true. The amendment requires that English learners be given English
instruction. The amendment’s core purpose is to make sure this instruction is in
English. This is not revolutionary. Non-English-speaking students from scores of
countries already receive instruction in English. What Amendment 31 would do is
require the same type of instruction for thousands of Spanish-speaking students,
mostly from Mexico, who are currently being taught in Spanish. The amendment’s
opponents haven’t said much about why a teaching technique that works for
students from other countries can’t work with students whose native language is
Spanish. Nor have they argued that the English immersion technique doesn’t work.
They have ignored that fact and instead have used fetching photos and whispered
slurs to indicate that the meanies behind Amendment 31 are trying to deprive
deserving students of crucial instruction.
The second claim is that the amendment will subject ordinary teachers to
lawsuits and bar them from future education
employment. This is a whopper. The amendment provides only two grounds for a
lawsuit. The first is against a school official who “willfully and repeatedly”
subverts the intent of the amendment, which is to provide English instruction to
non-English-speaking student. One newspaper columnist has claimed that teachers
who include Spanish words in spelling
tests could be sued. Others have said teachers could be sued if a student didn’t
learn English. What nonsense. These folks
haven’t read the amendment or couldn’t understand it. The amendment creates the
right to sue for a limited class of parents, but these suits could not be
reasonably filed against ordinary classroom teachers. Under the terms of the
amendment, it is administrators and school board members — not teachers — who
must make the decision whether or not to assign students with “special and
individual physical and psychological needs” to bilingual classrooms. They
can be sued. But no such assignment can be made without an elaborate and
detailed process that requires parents to be fully informed and to sign off on
the method of instruction. Suits filed under this provision, if they existed at
all, would be about as rare as flying pigs.
As for the assertion that the amendment will lead to increased taxes, that too
is without factual foundation. The state’s own
analysis says the financial impact is unknown. Some districts will save money.
Some won’t. It will take additional funds to do the prescribed testing to
determine how well the program is working, but imagine the outcry if testing
Finally there’s the issue of whether this measure should be in the Colorado
Constitution. It was proposed as a constitutional amendment because it arguably
impacts another provision requiring local districts to control instruction. The
tears being shed by the teacher’s union and others over this fact are fake. Were
the proposition advanced as a statute, this same crowd would challenge its
validity because it wasn’t in the Constitution.
There is a huge irony here. What started as a concern about the ability of
students to understand English has raised
questions about whether the teachers, administrators and school board members
arrayed against Amendment 31 have
mastered the language.
Al Knight (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a member of the Denver
Post editorial board. His column appears Wednesday and Sunday.