Littwin: Constitution wrong place for educational policy
Rocky Mountain News
October 3, 2002
Our topic today is Amendment 31 - the plan that would replace bilingual
education in our schools with English immersion.
And just to make sure you stay with me, I've brought Britney Spears into the
equation, even though equations are probably rarely bilingual.
Frankly, I don't know which educational system works better for immigrant
students learning English. But I do have an idea about the political system
After careful study, I've concluded:
• You shouldn't be voting yes on Amendment 31 come November.
• And you shouldn't be voting no, either, although Gov. Bill Owens
has recommended it.
This is not as confusing as it sounds. What I mean is, in a perfect
world, or even a moderately imperfect one, we shouldn't be voting
on Amendment 31 at all.
To bring Amendment 31 to a vote - as I guess we will - means
that you accept the notion that the best place to resolve
educational debates is in the Colorado Constitution. What's next -
an amendment on the merits of the Pythagorean theorem? How
about the length of school lunches? Pepsi vs. Coke? Britney (I told
you) vs. Christina?
When you amend the constitution, that means it can't be changed
without, yes, another amendment.
In other words, if we amend the constitution to say high school
vending machines can sell only Pepsi products - is anyone else
offended by this notion? - it couldn't be changed without a vote
even if Britney Spears and Bob Dole and Bob Dole's dog switch
The issue addressed by Amendment 31 is a policy debate, with
conflicting data presented by the two sides. And the truth is, new
methods for teaching Spanish-speaking students how to learn
English - possibly better than any choice today - may emerge as
early as tomorrow.
Here's a math question for you: How many years would it take
before we got around to changing the constitution again?
Which brings us to the next point. Even if this weren't an
amendment, if it were only a statute, we still shouldn't be voting
Tell me, do you really know whether a one-year immersion plan
works better than, say, a three-year, weaning-from-Spanish-to-
English bilingual program? I know I don't. Do you know what
classroom methods are used in either case?
Is this about education or is this about philosophy?
Clearly, for many voters, the issue will come down to politics - as if
a vote for immersion is a vote against immigration - when the
issue should begin and end with which method works. I don't
think there's a conservative or liberal way to teach chemistry,
even though I know I needed some bilingual help with the
It's like the old argument between whole language and phonics to
teach reading. Any teacher would love the option of using a
combination of methods because - here's a revelation - different
children learn differently.
Anyone who has children, or who has been a child, knows that
much without being told. Let's take this concept further. (Or is it
farther? You see why we need school?) You might as well have
the voters choose which scalpel surgeons use or which plays
Brian Griese can call. Or when it's time for a moratorium - OK, it's
past time - on Griese canine humor.
Which brings us to the next point.
Whatever your philosophy, this vote is too late.
This is not an English-only or English-first issue.
This is not about balkanization or whether Mexico is trying to
recover lost territory.
Whether it's bilingual ed or immersion, the idea is to teach kids
how to speak English.
Anyone who thinks learning English, as quickly and as well as
possible, isn't the best thing for immigrant kids isn't thinking,
critically or otherwise. And polling shows that most parents clearly
There was once an argument that a bilingual-teaching
establishment was more concerned with maintaining its power
than with teaching children to read English. I never bought that
argument, but, whatever the merits, the push, in federal and
state law, is to mainstream kids more quickly.
The answer now requires experimentation and flexibility and a
curriculum that works. Because it's clear we need to do a better
job in educating Spanish-speaking students.
The governor objects to Amendment 31 because, among other
points, he doesn't think the state constitution should be cluttered
with policy issues.
And when I asked him whether the issues that forced this debate
were changing, he said, "To an extent," before adding, "But we
need to keep the pressure on."
OK, keep the pressure on if it needs to be on. Just keep the
constitution out of it.
Mike Littwin's column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Call him
at (303) 892-5428 or e-mail him at