The downfall of Amendment 31
Rocky Mountain News. October 20, 2002
Although we are declared opponents of Amendment 31, we in no way defend the
indefensible practice of herding children with limited English skills into
classrooms where they are mostly taught in their own language, delaying their
acquisition of English sometimes for years.
Far too many Colorado children are in bilingual programs of this kind - 32
percent of English learners across the state, 42 percent in Denver, which is
operating under a court order. Even three years, which is the current standard
both statewide and in Denver, is too long.
No, our objections to the amendment are these:
• The harsh penalties provided for educators who issue waivers allowing children
to participate in bilingual education;
• The muddled language, which makes it impossible to predict what will happen to
the education of the remaining 68 percent of Colorado's 70,000 English learners;
• The fact that this punitive and poorly drafted measure would become a part of
the state Constitution, where its manifest flaws could not be corrected without
another statewide vote of the people.
Penalties: Ron Unz, principal sponsor of the amendment, has said that the
penalty sections of the California initiative (which passed in 1998) and the
Colorado measure are "virtually word-for-word identical." That is simply not
true. In California, parents can sue if their child has been denied the option
of an English-language education. The Colorado amendment says parents can sue if
they have by their own choice passed up the option of an English-language
education and later have second thoughts. That is, parents who request a waiver
of the immersion requirement (so that their children can be taught partly in
their native language) can sue the people who granted their request any time in
the next 10 years if the parents decide their request should have been denied.
Muddles: Most English learners in Colorado are in a pull-out program of some
kind, where they spend most of their day in
regular classes, and one or two periods studying English. Those language classes
are not taught in the child's native language; in fact they often mix children
who speak a variety of languages. So by one reading of the amendment, they are
already in English-language classrooms and wouldn't need a waiver. But by
another provision, they are still English learners, and therefore must be placed
in separate "immersion" classes devoted solely to teaching them English, which
many schools do not now have. How are schools to resolve this ambiguity in the
state constitution with the threat of legal action hanging over them?
Constitution: California's constitutional measure specifically allowed the state
legislature to override some of its provisions,
although it required a supermajority. That safety valve has been removed here.
And we haven't even touched on the expensive new testing mandates, the narrowing
of the grounds for waivers or the ban
on insurance for educators who issue them. There is indeed a problem with
bilingual education, but Amendment 31 is not the solution.