An attorney hired by Denver Public Schools has raised new legal questions about a proposed constitutional amendment that would require English language learners to be taught in English.
Under the initiative, “the parent or legal guardian of any Colorado school child” has the right to sue school officials to enforce the amendment.
That term’s exact meaning is unclear, Denver attorney Richard A. Westfall said in an opinion distributed at a Wednesday school board forum on the initiative that attracted a standing-room-only crowd.
“Read literally,” Westfall wrote in his opinion, “a parent or guardian could bring a claim even though the alleged violation had nothing to do with that parent or guardian’s own child.”
Initiative backer Rita Montero said the language is aimed at parents to act on behalf of their own children.
DPS hired Westfall for $250 an hour because it wanted a neutral opinion on the initiative’s possible legal impacts.
But Montero questioned whether an attorney could remain neutral if hired by a school board that is expected to vote today to oppose the initiative, which Coloradans will vote on in November.
“He did a lot of wordsmithing as a lawyer on this thing and created boogey men where there are no boogey men,” Montero said. “They’re just pulling straws out of the sky to create the illusion to the voters that this is going to create all these legal things and there are going to be a huge number of lawsuits filed.”
Westfall also raised questions about a section stating “all Colorado school children have the right to be provided at their public school of choice with an English language public education.”
“The grant of such state rights can give rise to claims for the denial of such rights, including federal and state constitutional claims under the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of both constitutions,” Westfall wrote.
Montero denied this is a problem.
Westfall also said there could be a basis for legally challenging a section that prevents school officials from using insurance to protect themselves against lawsuits resulting from violations of the amendment.
“It is questionable whether a state constitutional provision can legally prevent such action,” according to Westfall.
But Montero said attorneys for the legislative council that reviewed the initiative before the wording was finalized would have called it to her attention if this had been a problem.
Westfall also advised that school officials should “counsel that significant caution is in order” when granting waivers.
Parents have 10 years to sue if certain kinds of waivers are wrongly granted.
Montero said the amendment was purposely tough on waivers because many school districts, including Denver, have a history of forcing English language learners into classes taught mostly in Spanish without parents’ permission.
At Wednesday’s forum, which attracted more than 100 viewers and 50 speakers, many people complained the waiver process was so tough parents would no longer have a choice of educational philosophies.
Of particular concern was whether waivers would allow the continued existence of Sandoval Montessori, a school where English speakers learn Spanish and Spanish speakers learn English.
Montero said the initiative would not necessarily eliminate Sandoval.
But board members and speakers questioned that argument.
“I resent the fact that an outsider can make decisions about my child and my child’s future,” said Shelley Flanagan, mother of a Sandoval student.
The school board meeting today is at 5 p.m. at 900 Grant St.