Denver school officials told constituents to keep cool Wednesday but almost lost their own tempers as they questioned the authors of a proposed constitutional amendment banning most bilingual education.
The special session drew so many observers that more than 100 had to watch on TV in the Denver Public Schools lobby.
Board members hosted the meeting so they could learn enough about Amendment 31, which goes before voters in November, to decide whether to support or condemn the measure today.
As they berated amendment co-author Ron Unz of California for giving long, professorial answers and even chastised him for not turning off his phone, there was no doubt which way they were leaning.
“It’s not fair. It’s not smart. And I don’t think it’s a panacea for student achievement,” board member Kevin Patterson said.
“This initiative restricts parent choice even more than I originally interpreted,” member James Mejia said.
The amendment “is anti-choice at a time when many, many parents, including myself, want to see more choice,” said Carmen Atelano, the mother of a child at Academia Ana Marie Sandoval, a dual-language Montessori school.
Forty-nine members of the public spoke – only five in favor of the amendment.
One of them was Republican state school board candidate Mel Hilgenberg, who said the amendment would give Hispanic Coloradans the same opportunities as his German-speaking ancestors.
“Do you believe in choice for parents?” board President Elaine Gantz Berman asked him.
“Yes, I do,” he said.
“By supporting Amendment 31, you are by definition an opponent of choice,” she said.
Another Republican voter, John Wren, said he came to support Amendment 31 but that now he’s not sure.
“It’s sledgehammer democracy,” Wren said.
Much of the conversation concerned whether the amendment’s waiver process would let schools continue to offer successful bilingual and dual-language programs.
“It doesn’t get rid of all the bilingual programs. It only gets rid of the 98 percent that are unsuccessful,” said Unz, who persuaded voters to ban bilingual education in his home state in 1998 and in Arizona in 2000.
Superintendent Jerry Wartgow pressed Unz for a scenario where such waivers could be granted and grew frustrated at answers from the ex-physicist, such as: “Clearly a factor of four or five outweighs the default value you get with a factor of three.”
Academic researcher Kathy Escamilla said the amendment requires new tests that would cost $800,000 a year in DPS alone but includes no funding mechanism.
Jorge Garcia, a spokesman for the anti-amendment group English Plus, said the measure would destroy the Sandoval school and other dual-language schools in Colorado.
Such schools rely on equal numbers of native English and Spanish speakers enrolling. Under the amendment, the Spanish speakers would have to get waivers. But Wartgow said he would be nervous about granting waivers because of provisions that could get him sued.