Original URL: http://www.denverpost.com/Stories/0,1413,36%257E73%257E947511,00.html
One size doesn't fit all kids
By Gail Schoettler
Denver Post, Sunday, October 27, 2002
I don't care how children learn English. I just want all children to learn
English in the way that works best for them. I don't question Ron Unz's good
intentions, but I also don't believe a childless millionaire policy wonk knows
what is best for every child. Amendment 31, proposed by Unz, is a
one-size-fits-all approach, made worse by its punitive provisions against school
It would be too easy to make an issue of Ron Unz. He's prone to personal attacks
on those who disagree with him. He's been labeled a racist for calling Secretary
of Education Rod Paige, an African-American, "the dimmest member of the Bush
administration," a statement the White House quickly condemned.
But Unz is also the man who challenged then-California Gov. Pete Wilson in the
1994 GOP primary because he was outraged at Wilson's support of Proposition 187,
which excluded immigrant children from public school. Unz himself is the son of
a single mother who immigrated to the United States speaking no English.
My problem with Unz is his belief that only he knows what is best for children
who don't speak English. He has brought his anti-bilingual education crusade to
Colorado this year, adding to it harsh punishment for teachers, school officials
and board members who are deemed to be recalcitrant or simply acting in error.
More on that in a moment.
First, let's deal with the concept that all children who don't speak English can
learn better if they are immersed in an English-only classroom for a year. Kids
learn in many ways, some faster than others, some by reading, some by listening,
some by figuring things out by themselves. Schools need to offer different
learning environments to meet their students' varied needs. English immersion
may work for some. For others, it may be intimidating and ineffective, leaving
them far behind their classmates.
Parents and teachers need to have the flexibility to make different learning
choices for each student. That's the whole point behind charter schools, a key
vehicle in public education for meeting individual students' needs. Amendment 31
makes that virtually impossible.
Here's why. Although the initiative gives parents the right to seek a waiver
from the English immersion program for their children, it also creates legal
liability for school personnel. Consequently, what teacher would seek, or
administrator or school board grant, such a waiver - even if a child clearly
needs it - if they'll face lawsuits from parents?
Amendment 31 is conflicted on this issue. It states that parents must "initiate
the waiver process and be provided a full description of the educational
materials to be used in the different educational program." So, it is the
parents" choice to take their child out of an English immersion program. And
yet, it gives these same parents the right to sue, for a 10-year period, the
people who grant them the waiver they requested if they later decide that those
waivers were wrong or injured their children.
School employees or board members would be held personally liable for attorneys'
fees and actual or compensatory damages, presumably if children didn't learn
English as their parents expected - even though the parents are the ones who
asked for the waiver! What's more, these school employees or board members would
be barred from holding any school or public office for five years.
Parents, teachers and schools need more flexibility to meet kids' needs, not
less. We don't need engraved permanently in the Colorado Constitution an
educational system that may be a complete bust. That's why we have locally
elected school boards, accountable to the parents and citizens of their
community, setting educational policy. Not the state, not the
federal government - and certainly not some guy from somewhere else with his own
agenda for educating our kids.
Gail Schoettler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former U.S. ambassador,
Colorado lieutenant governor and treasurer, Democratic nominee for governor and
Douglas County school board member.