The fight over how Colorado public schools should teach English to speakers of other languages is a step closer to voters.
The state Supreme Court last week gave California businessman Ron Unz and Denver activist Rita Montero permission to collect signatures for a November ballot proposal forbidding teachers to instruct in languages other than English.
Opponents haven’t raised money to counter Unz’s millions, with which he has financed anti-bilingual proposals that passed by big margins in California and Arizona.
Once they do, they say, they’ll try to convince voters the initiative would rob them of something they cherish: local control of education.
The anti-bilingual camp, called English for the Children, has until Aug. 5 to collect more than 80,000 valid signatures. They’ll use volunteers and paid signature gatherers.
“It’s very late in the process,” Unz said. “It’s going to be tough to see whether we can get on the ballot. But we’re certainly going to give it a try.”
Bilingual education refers to various techniques for teaching a student in his or her native language – typically Spanish – while learning English. About 24,000 Colorado public-school students are in some form of bilingual education. Half of those are in Denver Public Schools, which aims to change Spanish speakers over to English in three years.
Unz and Montero favor an alternative called structured immersion: After one year of intensive English, students go into mainstream classes.
Signature-gathering for the petition was delayed by challenges from English Plus, a group of Colorado educators who say the state constitution is the wrong place to decide classroom issues. The Supreme Court agreed with them that the title – the wording voters see on the ballot – proposed by Unz and Montero was too confusing.
The new wording is somewhat clearer on one important feature of the proposal, said English Plus co-chair and state school board member Gully Stanford. The revision says it would be difficult for parents to opt out of immersion courses even if they want their children taught with bilingual methods.
But the title is still long and confusing, Stanford said. “So our job is to make the voting public aware of how damaging it would be to choice, to parental rights, and to local control if this were to pass.”
Hundreds of studies have been conducted to determine which language teaching method works best, but few have been scientifically valid, said Christine Rossell, a political-science professor at Boston University.
The scientific studies show that immersion is better at teaching children English, Rossell said. But bilingual education is not the “disaster” its foes claim, Rossell said. She said she particularly likes bilingual programs that aim to make kids fully literate in two languages.
There are about a dozen such “dual language” programs in Colorado. The Unz initiative would ban them along with programs that only aim to ease non-English speakers into English.
Unz also is pushing an anti-bilingual ballot proposal in Massachusetts for this November.
Unz promised Montero he would finance the Colorado anti-bilingual campaign through the end of signature-gathering.
“We’ll be talking again sometime soon” about how to finance the campaign through the fall if it proceeds, Montero said.