Bilingual foes gird for ballot

'English immersion' sought for schools

Voters may get the chance in November to virtually abolish bilingual education in Colorado public schools.

A group led by U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., and Linda Chavez of the Washington, D.C.-based One Nation Indivisible is moving ahead with plans to get an ‘English-immersion’ amendment to the state constitution on the November ballot.

The measure, if it gets on the ballot and is passed by voters, would basically give Spanish-speaking kids – including those now in bilingual education classes – one year of intense English instruction before mainstreaming them into regular classes.

‘The best thing we can do is to get children competent in English as quickly as possible,’ Tancredo said Wednesday.

Tancredo has been an outspoken critic of bilingual education and has repeatedly tried to cut federal funding of bilingual programs. Chavez, too, is known nationally as an English-only proponent.

Students currently in bilingual education classes receive instruction in Spanish and English and are gradually transitioned into regular classes over a period of several years. But the new proposal would all but eliminate bilingual education in the state’s 176 school districts.

It is similar to a controversial initiative now being implemented in California – one that has met some success but has also been criticized as being anti-immigrant.

Supporters of bilingual education say the new proposal would be a detriment to the state’s estimated 25,000 students now in bilingual programs. Students need several years of instruction in their native language, they believe, because many come to this country without knowing how to read in their own language and would struggle to learn English.

The proposal ‘is a very narrow, bigoted point of view,’ said Pam Martinez, director of a group called Padres Unidos that has championed bilingual education in the Denver school district. ‘It does not value the benefit of learning many languages. Instead of seeing a second language as an asset, they see it as something to get rid of.’

And that is the very essence of the bilingual debate here and nationwide.

Supporters of bilingual education say kids need to be gradually nurtured in their learning of English. But opponents say bilingual programs go on for too many years, long after kids have become fluent in English, costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

The Tancredo-Chavez proposal is still in the early stages.

Petition wording is still being developed. But organizers, who also include retired University of Colorado Spanish professor Charles King and Denver businessman Joe Chavez, said the ‘English for the Children’ initiative would allow parents to get waivers to stay in bilingual programs.

Parents would also have the option of sending their kids to charter schools with bilingual education programs.

‘The California experience has proved terrific,’ Linda Chavez said. ‘Data from last year suggests students are making improvements toward learning English.’

It is still unclear how the amendment, if passed, would affect Denver Public Schools, which has the majority of bilingual education students in the state, with about 17,000. Because DPS’ program is under federal court control, the state initiative may not supersede it based on past legal precedent.

That issue would probably be decided in court.

‘We’d need to sort out where the authority lies for control of this particular issue,’ DPS spokesman Mark Stevens said. ‘Our program is three years (of bilingual instruction) but parents have the capability of moving their children out before then.’

Even so, the proposal by Tancredo is ‘very different in philosophy and approach’ to what DPS now offers, Stevens said.

The first step in Tancredo and Chavez’s proposal is to finish the wording on the petition, then formally file it with the state. If the petition is approved by the state, then proponents would need 52,000 signatures of registered Colorado voters before it could find its way onto the November ballot.

A hearing next Wednesday with the Colorado Title Board will give opponents a chance to speak on the proposal.

‘It’s time to try something new in Colorado,’ Chavez said.

Carlos Illescas’ e-mail address is [email protected]

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