The upcoming vote on banning bilingual education from public schools has created an ideological crisis for conservative education activists.
After trying for years to batter down what they call the public school monopoly and expand school choice, they find themselves torn by a measure that removes choices from parents by requiring that children be taught in English when it is not their native language.
‘There are a lot of people in the educational choice movement that wish the bilingual (amendment) didn’t pop up,’ said Jon Caldara, head of the Independence Institute, a conservative research organization in Boulder.
Caldara said he will vote for the initiative, which will appear on the November ballot statewide as Amendment 31, because he believes bilingual education retards the formation of a common American culture. But he acknowledged that doing so will violate a principle he holds dear: ‘Parents can choose.’
The institute supports vouchers, the use of public money to send children to private schools that have programs unavailable in public schools. That would include private schools that use bilingual education, Caldara said.
Removing a choice from public-school parents would help in the long run because it would create additional frustration with public schools for failing to provide choices and thus drum up support for vouchers, Caldara said.
Former Denver school board member Rita Montero co-wrote the initiative with California businessman Ron Unz.
‘We do support parent choice, unfortunately we’ve had to put it back in the hands of schools to make those choices,’ said Montero.
The amendment was written only because school districts got into the habit of placing Spanish-speaking children in bilingual classes without asking parents first, she alleged.
‘Forever and a day, parents’ rights never got addressed,’ she said.
The amendment allows waivers back into bilingual education but forces all children to spend the first 30 days of every school year in English immersion classes regardless of their parents’ wishes.
Montero agreed parents have no say in the matter for those 30 days. ‘The first option they’re going to be told they have to go into is sheltered English immersion,’ she said.
Opponents say the waiver rules are so restrictive no school will grant them.
Montero said the restrictions are necessary because too many parents obtained waivers in California and Arizona, where similar but less toughly worded initiatives have passed.
Colorado’s most prominent school choice advocate, Gov. Bill Owens, has not taken a position on Amendment 31 or even decided whether to take a position, spokesman Dan Hopkins said.
But Steve Schuck, a real estate developer who funds the Parents Choice scholarship program in Colorado Springs, said Amendment 31 betrays conservatives’ commitment to personal decision-making.
‘I have strong feelings about English only and immersion and bilingual and all that stuff, but all of that pales compared to my commitment to parental choice,’ Schuck said.
‘I find this issue to be a violation of the fundamental underpinning of parental empowerment,’ Schuck said.
‘My opinion and choice ought to affect nobody but my own children. And my opinion and judgment should not be imposed upon anyone else.’
Schuck said he probably will vote against the amendment. School choice, he said, is ‘a civil rights battle and to me Amendment 31 is just a distraction. I don’t know why the hell our allies are wasting time and money on it.’
Alex Cranberg, a businessman who runs a similar scholarship program in Denver and also favors vouchers, said choice is not solely a conservative value – he calls himself ‘populist-libertarian-progressive’ – and he, too, resents the amendment’s position that government, not parents, should decide on an educational program.
Republican legislators he has talked with ‘are truly torn over it,’ Cranberg said, adding he doesn’t even know if he’ll cast a vote.
‘I don’t think we should be put in the position of having to debate a policy’ on bilingual education, Cranberg said.
‘I’m not for or against English immersion, I’m for parents being able to choose it for their children if they feel it’s appropriate for their children and reject it if they feel it’s not.’
Unz is scheduled to address the Denver school board at 900 Grant St. at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. People wishing to speak at the meeting may call Denver Public Schools at 303-764-3414.