Bilingual issue removed from Nov. 7 ballot

Education measure misleading to parents, state high court says

The state Supreme Court on Monday knocked a proposed measure to limit bilingual education in Colorado off the November ballot.

The justices ruled the measure’s title and summary failed to tell voters that school districts would not be required to offer bilingual instruction if it passed.

The omission gave parents the false impression, justices said, that they would have a choice between bilingual classes and one-year “English immersion” classes in which students’ native languages would be spoken sparingly.

In reality, the measure would have required most children to join mainstream classes after one year of bilingual education. That’s two to four years sooner than most bilingual students now do.

The ruling essentially deals a death blow to an initiative-petition drive to place the bilingual issue on the Nov. 7 ballot.

“This decision is deeply disappointing to the parents of children caught in failing bilingual programs who desperately want their children to learn English,” organizer Linda Chavez said. “It means that Colorado voters will be denied the opportunity to help these children.”

Chavez, a former Reagan appointee, heads One Nation Indivisible. The Washington-based education reform group is leading the initiative campaign,
which also had the backing of Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo.

For more than a month, supporters have been collecting petition signatures,
and organizers said they had gathered about two-thirds of the 62,000 minimum needed to make the ballot.

But all of those signatures were invalidated by the court’s ruling because people had signed petitions that contained the faulty ballot title language.

The justices said the title was further flawed because it said children should be taught English “as rapidly and effectively as possible” which is a
“prohibited catch phrase,” the court said.

That phrase pretty much defeats the purpose of the election, the judges said, which is to debate whether the proposal’s method of teaching is the most rapid and effective.

The court has two weeks to decide if it wants the secretary of state to hold a special hearing for a new title. Even if it ordered a hearing, the deadline to submit signatures is Aug. 7 ? too little time to gather a new batch of signatures.

Backers conceded this year is out, but they pledged to return more organized and forceful in 2002.

“This is not an issue that’s going away,” said Jorge Amselle, a spokesman for One Nation Indivisible. “Opponents bought some time but that’s about it.”

Representatives of Common Sense Colorado, the opposition group that pushed the court challenge, promised similar resolve in organizing and educating the public as they head into the next general election.

“We need to respect the fact that there are people out there who don’t speak English,” said Mary Alice Mandarich, a member of Common Sense’s steering committee. “We know people have to speak English but the way you achieve that goal is critical.

“It should be determined at the local level. It should not be one size fits all.”

Those two issues ? loss of local control and an inflexible uniform system ?
were primary arguments against the proposal.

Colorado has a strong tradition of making public policy decisions closest to home. And besides, officials said, school districts are moving away from long-term bilingual instruction.

For instance, Colorado has an estimated 52,000 limited-English speakers and nine in 10 speak Spanish. Denver Public Schools has the most ? nearly 17,000, more than 93 percent of whom speak Spanish. DPS is in the first year of a federal court-sanctioned plan to move students to mainstream classes within three years. It needs time to prove itself, district officials said.

Most bilingual programs teach students subjects in their native tongues because that’s how their minds process information. They are also taught to speak and read English. Gradually, sometimes in three to five years,
students are moved into mainstream classes.

Supporters of the ballot measure argued that students were not learning English fast enough or not well at all in bilingual programs. English is essential to prosper and immersion in English is the best way to do it, they said.

Only one state, California, has such a tough approach to English language instruction. There, test scores after one year continued to show a big achievement gap between limited-English students and others. Scores rose slightly for limited-English students, but those gains were comparable to those of English speakers.

Contact Brian Weber at (303) 892-5245 or

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