Colo. Ponders a ban on bilingual education
Like Mass. initiative, Nov. 5 question would substitute immersion
By Chryss Cada, Boston Globe Correspondent, 10/14/2002
FORT COLLINS, Colo. - In the first-grade class at Harris Bilingual Elementary
School, it is just another Tuesday for Paola Rascon and just another Martes for
Lunchtime has just ended, and two groups of students have switched classrooms.
Cole and his fellow native English speakers have moved into Isa Pinedo's
classroom to learn Spanish as a second language. Paola and other native Spanish
speakers have filed into Carolina Levy-Bennett's classroom to take English as a
In the morning, each group of pupils worked on literacy in their primary
language. But now they are seated in separate circles, learning another language
through songs and repetitive drills. This particular method is called two-way
The teaching techniques used at Harris School in Fort Collins and other
bilingual programs at schools across the state face a political challenge. On
Nov. 5, Colorado voters will decide a ballot question - virtually identical to
one that will be submitted to Massachusetts voters that day, and also sponsored
by California millionaire Ron Unz - to ban bilingual education and replace it
with one year of immersion in English. One difference is that the Colorado
initiative, Amendment 31, would insert the change into the state's constitution.
In Republican-leaning Colorado, nearly every state official, including Governor
Bill Owens, has come out against the proposal. But the latest polls indicate
about 48 percent of the state's voters favor the bilingual ban, significantly
less than the support found in Massachusetts surveys. About 23,000 students in
Colorado take bilingual education, about 3 percent of statewide enrollment.
Proponents of the Colorado initiative include some Latino parents who say their
children have been forced into bilingual education, which they consider to be a
''Bilingual education is a system designed to keep a whole class of people in
the language ghetto,'' said Rita Montero, a former member of Denver's school
board who organized the initiative campaign. ''If our kids are stuck in
bilingual education they can't progress economically. I think people are afraid
that if we teach every child English there won't be anyone to mow their lawn for
$5 an hour or hand them a burger across the drive-up window.''
Olga Larson, who is from Peru, fought unsuccessfully to have her children
removed from a bilingual program in Denver. Eventually, she put both in private
''My son came home one day and announced he hated school,'' she said.
''That's when I learned they had put him in bilingual education. I didn't make
the decision to put him there - they make that decision for parents.''
But Jay Smith, whose daughter is learning Spanish at Academia Ana Maria Sandoval
in Denver, the state's other two-way bilingual school, said the proposed ban
would take away choice from parents.
''My daughter is in an exceptional bilingual program that will be dismantled if
this amendment passes,'' Smith said. ''Not only do I lose control of how my
daughter is taught, the change is written in stone.''
Like Smith, parents who chose to put their native English-speaking child in
bilingual education are fiercely loyal to that style of learning. At Harris
School, many Latino children have ''No on 31'' buttons pinned on their small
Pat Stryker, a philanthropist whose daughter is enrolled in the third grade at
the school, donated $3 million to the ''No on 31'' campaign. It is the single
largest political contribution in the state's history and has been used to
television stations with ads opposing the initiative.
Unz, the force behind bilingual bans that passed in California in 1998 and
Arizona in 2000, provided $350,000 to get the Colorado initiative on the ballot.
The wording in Colorado, as in Massachusetts, would make it difficult for
parents to obtain waivers to allow their children to stay in bilingual
education. The large number of waivers obtained in California has weakened the
ban's impact there.
''People were allowed to ignore the California initiative,'' Unz said. ''We
learned from the example and tightened up the language.''
The Colorado version would give schools more power to reject waiver requests
than schools would have in Massachusetts. There are other differences in how
immersion would be implemented and how costs would be paid in each state.
Besides the question of whether bilingual education has been effective,
Colorado's debate about the proposed ban has focused on teachers being subject
to lawsuits if they do not comply with it and the cost of implementing the
Based on expenditures in Arizona, opponents of the ban say it would cost
Colorado a minimum of $30 million to switch to immersion classes.
As the debate continues, so have bilingual classes at Harris School. Once the
second language part of the day is over, students return to their regular
classrooms for social studies, science and math.
Cole said ''adios'' to Mrs. Pinedo, and Paola said ''goodbye'' to Mrs.
Levy-Bennett. Voters will decide next month whether they will be saying goodbye
This story ran on page A2 of the Boston Globe on 10/14/2002. © Copyright 2002
Globe Newspaper Company.