War of words: Bilingual battle grips schools Measure’s implications
Glenwood Springs Post-Independent October 20, 2002
By Carrie Click Staff Writer
On Nov. 5, Colorado voters will be asked to decide whether Colorado’s state
Constitution should be
amended to require English-only learning in public schools.
Amendment 31 isn’t as clear-cut as a simple vote supporting the use of the
“The implications are enormous,” said Linda Lafferty of Carbondale, a bilingual
If Amendment 31 passes, it would require all Colorado public schools to
eliminate bilingual, English as
a Second Language and dual language learning.
These would be replaced statewide by sheltered English immersion (SEI) language
Under the new mandate, all non-English speaking students would receive one year
English-language instruction. After a year, those students would be mainstreamed
Agreeing to oppose
During this election season, candidates may disagree with one another, but on
Amendment 31 many
Colorado politicians agree.
Incumbent Republican Gov, Bill Owens and his Democratic opponent, Rollie Heath,
amendment, as do U.S. Senate incumbent Wayne Allard and Democratic challenger
In the state attorney general’s race, the candidates disagree. Incumbent
Attorney General Ken
Salazar opposes it, but his challenger, Republican Marti Allbright, supports the
“Amendment 31 is a crucial first step to ensuring that no child is denied the
benefits of our economy
due to a lack of language skills,” Allbright said.
The Colorado Association of School Boards has also taken a firm stand against
the amendment, as
have the Roaring Fork Re-1 and Garfield Re-2 school boards.
Both the amendment’s staunch supporters as well as its avid opponents have the
exact same end in
sight: English-speaking students.
It’s the methods to get there — and the freedoms and liabilities at stake — that
are causing the most
Proponents of the measure say a one-year immersion program is sufficient for
students to learn the language.
“English immersion is the way to achieve English fluency,” said Kent Leonard, a
candidate for U.S. Congressional District 1 in Colorado. “We need to remember
this is the end goal.”
But language experts like Lafferty vehemently disagree.
“Anyone who knows anything knows that to function at an academic level, it takes
seven to 10 years
to fully learn a language,” said Lafferty, an ESL and bilingual teacher at Aspen
“Sometimes it takes less, like the president of this year’s Aspen High senior
class. He learned English
in three years’ time,” she said. “But if you want to make sure a kid drops out
of school, don’t give
him the support he needs to learn the language.”
Beyond the question of how to teach English lie deeper issues — American
laws and taxpayer concerns.
“It’s almost a primordial fear (Americans have) of another language,” said
The amendment is more a result of lax immigration laws than it is about
educating children, agree
Lafferty and Felicia Trevor, executive director of the Stepstone Center, a
social justice center based
Both women say that U.S. immigration law and Mexico’s exploitive policies
towards its citizens have
forced many Latino immigrants to leave their own country — for good.
In Colorado, perhaps no community understands the importance of addressing
better than Carbondale. In the past 10 years, it’s had the fastest-growing
Latino population in the
state. Currently, 62 percent of children in Carbondale public schools are
“Most of the people who come to this country are going to stay,” said Trevor.
“So we decide, do we
want their children to learn the language or not? If we want them to learn the
language, we have to
teach it to them in a way that supports them really learning it.”
Issues of paying for educating non-citizens also are also a concern for many.
“There’s a feeling out there about people not wanting to pay taxes to school
“But that’s not true. Only a small fraction of workers are getting paid under
the table. All the other
workers — if they’re legally here or not — have taxes taken out of their
paychecks,” she said.
“They rent places to live, and technically, that money goes towards their
landlords’ property taxes,
and that goes towards public schools. So they are contributing.”
English for the children — an oxymoron?
Behind Amendment 31 is Ron Unz, a software company owner from Palo Alto, Calif.
organization, English for the Children, spearheaded an earlier initiative,
Proposition 227, in California
in 1998, and a similar measure, Proposition 203, in Arizona in 2000. Both
measures passed, but both
are now being contested.
The group’s tag line, “Let’s teach English to all of America’s children and end
nationwide,” baffles opponents.
“The bottom line is politicians shouldn’t be telling teachers how to do their
jobs,” said Trevor. “You
can’t teach a foreign language to someone in nine months. Maybe really, really
small children can
pick up a language that quickly, but for the vast majority, it’s not possible.”
Unz and former Denver Public School board member Rita Montero are now behind
English-only amendment. Unz’s organization is also sponsoring a similar proposal
“Begun with the best of theoretical intentions over 30 years ago,” said Unz,
“bilingual education has
proven itself a dismal practical failure. For decades, millions of mostly
Hispanic immigrant students
have remained trapped in these Spanish-almost-only classes.”
Lafferty takes issue with Unz’s definition of bilingual.
“Bilingual means two languages,” she said. “These classes are not
Spanish-almost-only. One way we
teach is to ‘preview-review,’ for example. We’ll have textbooks in Spanish and
we’ll read and talk in
Spanish, but we’ll only write in English. Then we’ll review the entire lesson in
“This is how you teach a language, not immerse kids for a year and then dump
them in the regular
classroom,” she added.
Loss of control
Trevor said along with promoting an unrealistic language learning timeline,
Amendment 31 has three
“One, it’s very costly,” she said. “Two, it’s extremely punitive towards
teachers. And three, it takes
away parental and local control for children’s education.”
Even though bilingual, ESL and dual language programs would be eliminated,
opponents claim that a
complex type of testing would be implemented, costing taxpayers up to an
additional $15 million in the
first year alone.
The punitive nature of the amendment could also be detrimental to overall public
said. One portion of the amendment allows a parent or legal guardian to sue
teachers, school board
members and administrators if they determine that their child is not being
taught in English.
“Based solely on that part of the amendment, it shouldn’t pass,” said Lafferty.
“What that means is
that the school district will be left wide open for lawsuits. By opening up the
ability to sue teachers
and other school district employees, we can be assured that districts — already
strapped for funds —
will never have any money. They’ll be fighting lawsuits instead of educating
Maintaining local control is a big reason why the Roaring Fork and Garfield
school boards voted to
oppose Amendment 31 at recent board meetings.
“Curricular decisions should not be mandated by the state Constitution,” said
Re-1 school board
member Trési Houpt. “This amendment takes away the school board’s ability to
review each of our
educational programs. What is the best way to educate second language learners?
That needs to be
determined at the local level.”