Opponents of a ballot measure that would nearly ban bilingual education in Colorado said Thursday they accidentally exaggerated the costs of a similar measure that passed in Arizona in 2000.
English Plus, the group fighting Amendment 31, held a news conference Thursday morning to say the measure would cost school districts tens of millions of dollars if voters approve it on Tuesday.
Gully Stanford, the group’s co-chairman, said Arizona boosted its funding for English learners by $442 per student in 2000 because of Proposition 203, which is similar to the Colorado measure.
Arizona Department of Education spokeswoman Tara Teichgraeber said the state did add $442 per English learner in 2000. But it did so because that’s what a federal lawsuit settlement required, not Proposition 203.
“These are separate instances that occurred at about the same time,” Teichgraeber said.
Stanford said English Plus picked up the error from a newspaper article and didn’t call Arizona to check it out.
“I stand corrected,” he said.
The mixup angered Ron Unz, the California businessman who is Amendment 31’s financial backer.
“They simply are using utterly fraudulent figures,” Unz said.
English Plus TV ads say Amendment 31 could cost school districts $66 million annually. But at the news conference, Stanford said the amendment would cost districts $30.9 million a year. He got that number by multiplying Arizona’s $442 by the 70,000 English learners in Colorado schools.
Teichgraeber did not know of any study that has nailed down costs stemming directly from Proposition 203. Costs do seem to have been minimal, she said.
At the news conference, members of seven school boards said Amendment 31 would cost their districts huge sums.
Jefferson County board member Jon DeStefano estimated his district’s cost at between $4 million and $8 million because it could force the district to offer smaller classes and hire new teachers.
Board members from Denver, Littleton, Boulder, Greeley, Colorado Springs and Cherry Creek echoed DeStefano’s fear.
“It’s an unfunded mandate,” said Wendy DeBell, president of the Cherry Creek board.
But Proposition 203 did not change much in Arizona, Teichgraeber said.
Seventeen percent of Arizona’s public-school students are in some sort of special English program, just like before, she said. And 11 percent of those still are in bilingual or dual-language classes.
The Legislative Council, the nonpartisan research arm of the Colorado legislature, has said there could be new costs to school districts from Amendment 31.
A 2001 study of six immersion programs across the U.S. found a range of $192.10 to $3,067.91 per student, the council said.
For Colorado, that translates into anything from $13.4 million to $214.8 million a year.
The amendment will save money because schools will no longer have to recruit bilingual teachers or buy Spanish materials, said Rita Montero, who chairs Unz’s local organization, English for the Children Colorado. She declined to make an estimate.
Amendment 31 enjoyed a big lead in polls at first, then lost it after English Plus launched a $3 million ad campaign.
In recent days, however, the gap has narrowed as the pro-31 side aired ads with former Gov. Dick Lamm saying he regrets supporting bilingual education decades ago. As of Wednesday, 40 percent of likely voters supported Amendment 31, and 46 percent opposed it, according to Ciruli Associates.