Bilingual initiative blocked

The issue: State Supreme Court said initiative's title was misleading;

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled Monday that the title of a proposed initiative limiting bilingual education was “misleading” and had to be revised. Since the last meeting of the title board before November elections is May 15, proponents may not be able to get all the i’s dotted in time, meaning another two-year delay.

Whatever the eventual fate of this initiative, and we haven’t yet taken a position on it, such a delay is unfortunate. This issue is of tremendous importance to Colorado, with its large population of children who come to school with limited English proficiency. Voters should have the opportunity to debate the issue and decide.

Two years is a long time when you’re six years old and just starting school.

Two years ago, when the Colorado Supreme Court ruled against the first incarnation of the initiative, we agreed they were right. The language of the ballot title then contained a cheerleading phrase about teaching English “as rapidly and effectively as possible,” though what constitutes the most effective way to teach English is precisely what supporters and opponents disagree about.

The court also said the ballot title was not sufficiently informative about when parents could obtain a waiver allowing their children to continue in traditional bilingual programs.

Well, the cheerleading is gone. And the title approved last winter is quite expansive on the circumstances under which waivers will be allowed.

Good enough? Not for this court. It conceded that the two related titles reflect the proposed initiatives but “nevertheless tend to overwhelm and obscure the inevitable outcome of the waiver process when all the provisions are properly taken into account.”

How’s that again? The justices can’t know the “inevitable outcome” of these provisions any more than the proponents or the opponents do; that’s one of the things they disagree on. In the rough-and-tumble of practical politics, what’s inevitable isn’t necessarily predictable.

Two years ago, the court rejected this initiative because it inserted one side’s opinion into the ballot language; this time, it rejected the initiative because it lacked one side’s opinion.

We find the decision insufferably patronizing. Even if voters find the (court-mandated) length of the ballot title intimidating, we predict that there will be no lack of public debate compressing the details into easily comprehensible sound bites. Will opponents trumpet their belief that this initiative essentially spells the death of bilingual education as we know it? Of course they will; they’re already doing that.

We commend the court for rejecting opponents’ specious claims that the initiative covered more than one subject, noting for example that a measure’s methods of enforcement are an essential part of the measure, not a separate topic.

But we’re concerned that the court’s decision came so late in the title-setting process. The title board made its final decision last Dec. 19.

Of course we can’t assert that the timing was a deliberate attempt to run out the clock on proponents’ petition-gathering window, but we do observe that the court can act with alacrity when it chooses. We respectfully suggest that when the integrity of the initiative process is at stake, it should choose the least possible delay.

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