Single subject: Bilingual ed initiative clears a big hurdle

Denver Rocky Mountain News
Saturday, December 22, 2001

THE ISSUE: Bilingual education initiative title is approved

OUR VIEW: Courts shouldn't keep it off ballot

As supporters of the initiative process, we believe it shouldn't be derailed by bureaucratic maneuvering that keeps initiatives off the ballot, thereby denying Colorado residents the opportunity to vote them up or down.

So we're pleased that the state's title-setting board approved two proposed initiatives on English-language acquisition. Bilingual education as it is currently practiced usually requires children to spend several years in transitional classes not taught in English. Both proposals would largely replace that model with one expecting that most English learners would spend a year in an English-immersion program before moving into regular classes. One of the two adds a $5 million tutoring program.

The initiatives were challenged, as initiatives frequently are, by opponents claiming they violated the single-subject rule. Though some such challenges are justified, often they are no more than a tactic to defeat an initiative before it ever reaches the voters. We believe the rule should be interpreted liberally rather than strictly -- as it is in the legislature, which also operates under a single-subject rule.

Everything in these initiatives pertains to English-language acquisition. That is indeed one subject, and we're pleased that the title-setting board agreed.

Opponents now plan to try the same ploy before the state Supreme Court, which has, unfortunately, been inclined to give legislators more latitude than they grant ordinary citizens. In fact, if the legislature puts a referendum on the ballot, the court will not even review it until after it passes, if it does. Shouldn't the courts show the same deference toward citizen initiatives?

That's because the campaigns for and against initiatives -- even if they're defeated -- are educational both for the public and for the legislature. We're thinking particularly of Amendment 24, the anti-growth proposal that was roundly defeated in 2000 after leading in early polling. We opposed the amendment, but we credit it with finally pushing a recalcitrant legislature to take on the job itself. Of course it still took them several tries, but the threat that Amendment 24's backers would return eventually concentrated their minds sufficiently to accomplish something much more sensible and satisfactory than the amendment would have been if it passed.

When opponents of the bilingual education amendment took it to court in 2000, the justices wouldn't allow it on the ballot because of two flaws that appear now to have been fixed. But at the time, two justices suggested they would also have rejected it for violating the single-subject rule. We hope that the a majority of the court will disagree.