Battle for English immersion classes far from over

EDITOR’S NOTE: The author and U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Littleton,
co-sponsored the effort to get an English immersion proposal on the ballot in Colorado.

Thanks to the votes of seven members of the Colorado Supreme Court,
thousands of Colorado public school children who can’t yet speak English will have to wait at least two more years before they are given a chance to learn the language.

On Monday, the state court struck down proposed language for a ballot initiative that would have allowed Colorado voters the opportunity to decide what was best for non-English-speaking children: to remain in programs where they learn most of their lessons in Spanish for years on end, or be placed in classes where they would be taught English immediately in an intensive, one-year program.

Two years ago, California voters adopted a similar measure, with remarkable results. Last year alone, more than 35,000 children in Los Angeles schools completed the special English immersion program, and were able to join regular classes. Throughout the state, test scores rose among children in the English immersion classes; in most cases, by double digits.

An analysis by the San Jose Mercury News revealed that second-grade students from districts using English immersion scored some 16 percentile points higher in reading and 13 percentile points higher in math than those from districts that maintained bilingual programs. Students in other grades achieved similar gains as well, after only seven months in the program.

For years, the bilingual education lobby has successfully protected its own jobs at the expense of children. Arguing that non-English-speaking Hispanic children can’t learn English until they successfully learn to read and write in Spanish, bilingual advocates insist schools keep these children in Spanish language programs for three, five, even seven years or more. The results have been devastating, for the children and the communities in which they will grow up, live and work.

Many of these children never learn to speak, read and write English well.
And no wonder; instead of being taught English, they’re taught virtually all their lessons in Spanish. As former Denver public school teacher Joseph C’de Baca explains it, ‘I’d have these kids from Mexico that I knew from Hamilton Middle School when they were in sixth grade, and they were nice kids, good kids. Then, I’d see them a few years later at West High School, where I also taught, and they’re still in the bilingual program.
And they’re in 12th grade.’ Rita Montero, former Denver school board member, tells a similar story. She recalls being approached by a mother whose son, a senior in high school, hoped to attend a state university. But when the young man told his counselor of his plans, she explained that since he had never learned English well enough to take his exams in English, his chances of getting in were slim at best. ‘I don’t understand,’
the woman told Montero, ‘my son’s been getting A’s and B’s in the bilingual program, but now he still can’t go to college.’ And Montero herself had to struggle to remove her own son from bilingual education classes, where he’d been placed simply because Montero answered a school questionnaire that asked whether anyone in the home spoke a language other than English.
Montero thought it was important for her son to be able to speak both English and Spanish, but she was shocked to learn that he wasn’t being taught either language well. When she complained, Montero met resistance from her son’s teacher, the school principal, and officials in the district bilingual education office. She was only able to remove her son from the program by transferring schools.

There are thousands of such stories in Colorado, which is what motivated people like C’de Baca, Montero, and others to support an effort to allow Colorado voters to replace failing bilingual programs with intensive English immersion classes. By the time the court acted, supporters of Colorado English for the Children already had gathered more than 40,000 signatures toward the 62,348 needed to qualify for the ballot. And polls showed that an overwhelming majority of Colorado voters favored the initiative. Now, these efforts will have to be put on hold.

But no one should imagine that the Colorado Supreme Court has had the final word in this struggle. Supporters of the initiative intend to work hard to place this measure on the ballot in 2002. The failure to teach English to Hispanic immigrant children will irreparably harm not only the kids themselves but all Colorado residents. And Colorado voters deserve the right to rescue these children. Former Denverite Linda Chavez is president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington-based think tank, and chairman of One Nation Indivisible, a nonprofit group dedicated to civil rights issues.

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