Bilingual fray may go to ballot

Constitutional amendment proposed to limit dual-language education

Wednesday, June 20, 2001 – Opponents of bilingual education formally brought their quest to Colorado on Tuesday, filing a ballot initiative meant to go before voters in November 2002.

It calls for a constitutional amendment mandating that English learners in Colorado public schools go into transitional classes “not normally intended to exceed one year,” then be mainstreamed.

Pro-bilingual forces promised a fight, saying the state has no right to dictate classroom policies.

But voters approved similar measures in California in 1998 and Arizona in 2000 by wide margins.

Bilingual education includes a variety of strategies for using a student’s native language – typically Spanish – instead of or in addition to English.

The announcement of the filing was made by Rita Montero, a former Denver school board member and liberal activist who turned against bilingual education after she tried to get her son out of Denver’s bilingual program but, she said, was forced to keep him in it.

Bilingual education, she said, is “a program with great intentions that went far astray.” She said the concept has been hijacked by radicals like she used to be who have turned it into “the last bastion of the Chicano movement.” She accused bilingual educators of exploiting Hispanic children to perpetuate their jobs.

Joining Montero at the state Capitol was Ron Unz, the California software entrepreneur who launched the California and Arizona campaigns. He calls his movement English for the Children. Initiative backers must gather about 80,600 signatures of registered voters to put the measure on the 2002 ballot.

Unz said rising test scores in California prove that banning foreign languages from instructional use improves student performance. That has been contested in academic circles, however, with some saying California’s massive experiment in reducing class sizes improved scores more.

And the researcher in charge of studying the shift says the question may be unanswerable.

Good teachers get good results and bad teachers get bad results regardless of what strategy officially is in use, said Tom Parrish of the American Institutes for Research in Palo Alto, Calif.

Montero and other speakers blasted Denver Public Schools. Joseph C’de Baca, a DPS teacher for 15 years, said his English learners grow up “bi-illiterate.”

Asked why a constitutional amendment is the right way to address a single district’s shortcomings, Montero said outlying districts have an even graver shortage of qualified bilingual teachers.

“We’re saying, give us fully qualified English speakers if you can’t give us fully qualified Spanish speakers,” Montero said.

Elaine Gantz Berman, president of the Denver school board, said DPS has already addressed the group’s concerns by creating its English Language Acquisition program, under federal court supervision, in 1999.

“I agree that children should learn English as quickly as possible,” Berman said. “I also think we need to tailor our program around the individual needs of the students, and our experience shows us that younger kids transition quicker than older kids.”

A retired DPS principal, Alvina Lujan Crouse, said she supports Unz and Montero’s contention that ELA is no better than “late exit” bilingual education.

“Many principals question the program,” she said.

But Lorenzo Trujillo, a lawyer and Commerce City high school principal who will help lead the opposition to the initiative, said those are not issues that should be addressed in the constitution.

“There’s going to be a significant campaign to educate the public that we also agree that English is important for all children. But by the same token we believe that local control is important,” Trujillo said.

Trujillo said his first move will be to examine the initiative filed with the legislative council. Last year Trujillo co-chaired a group that kept a similar initiative off the ballot on the grounds that its title addressed more than one topic.

Anticipating a similar challenge, English for the Children actually filed two versions. One creates an adult literacy program, which Unz said has been a hit in California, while the other is mute on that subject, shielding it from an accusation of breaking the single-subject rule.

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