It’s a technique well known to high school debaters. Faced with an argument that can’t be won, concede it and try to shift attention to something else.
That’s the tactic English Plus hopes will make Colorado the first state to reject an anti-bilingual education measure backed by California businessman Ron Unz.
Unz crafted Amendment 31 with former Denver school board member Rita Montero. It holds that students in Colorado public schools should be taught in English.
It’s hard to argue with that.
So English Plus isn’t.
Instead, the group, formed specifically to fight Amendment 31, is trying to get voters to focus on aspects of the wordy addition to the state constitution that they might otherwise miss. Examples: the costs of new testing, restrictions on parents directing their kids’ schooling, and new legal liabilities for teachers and school officials.
Les Woodward, a Denver school board member, summed up the concede-to-conquer strategy this way at a recent “No on 31″ news conference:
“Denver Public Schools stands solidly behind the proposition that every one of our students must learn English. The Denver school board does not oppose the teaching of students in immersion. But it embraces parental choice, which would be eliminated by this amendment.”
English Plus organizers know they face an uphill rhetorical and financial battle.
“We have multiple messages to get out on a budget of $117,000,” said English Plus co-chair and state school board representative Gully Stanford. “Unz … has a single message.”
Early missteps by English Plus included forgetting to tell reporters about news conferences and not doing polling, Stanford said.
“We’re making this up as we go along,” he said.
Unz persuaded voters to pass anti-bilingual measures by wide margins in California in 1998 and Arizona in 2000. He is trying again in Massachusetts as well as Colorado this November.
And he is doing it virtually alone.
Unz’s organization, English for the Children, has local coordinators, such as Montero in Colorado. But Unz is a communicating machine. He takes reporters’ calls on the first ring and sends supporters long “Dear Friends” e-mails in which he updates them on his campaigns and editorializes on a wide range of social issues.
Unz said he considered hiring a political consultant when he launched his first anti-bilingual campaign in California but decided it would be more efficient to manage things himself.
“I think it’s a sign, among other things, of commitment to the effort,” he said.
“In terms of people actively working on this campaign, it’s basically Rita. Then I can help out a little bit even though I live in another state. And the opposition has a huge group of all these organizations. The opposition has far more organizations than we have members of the entire committee.”
English Plus has 29 member organizations. They include the Colorado Association of School Executives, the Colorado PTA, the AFL-CIO and the Colorado Hispanic Bar Association.
“It could be the ‘no’ campaign spends all their time in meetings with each other,” Unz said.
Indeed, “coalition politics is probably the most complex form of politics,” said John Britz, a consultant advising English Plus.
“When you bring together individuals of diverse backgrounds and try to get them to coalesce around an issue, it is a very difficult process. But it has huge upsides. You begin to put together a huge coalition of support that two people cannot knock down.”
Money is a problem for English Plus. Unz, a financial software entrepreneur, self-financed his California and Arizona campaigns. In Colorado, he paid signature-gatherers to collect the more than 80,000 voter names needed to place a statewide proposition.
“No on 31 doesn’t have a godfather,” Stanford said. One potential godfather – fellow Democrat and state school board member Jared Polis, who like Unz made a fortune in technology – is keeping his distance.
“We have asked him for money,” Stanford said.
Polis said he will vote against Amendment 31, but declined to say why he is not more involved with English Plus.
English Plus is unlikely to have enough money to run TV ads, Britz said. Instead it will pitch reporters testimonials from people who have been through bilingual education and say that, even if it isn’t perfect, it’s nowhere near as bad as Unz and Montero make it out to be, he said.
The argument, Britz said, will be: “If algebra were broken, you wouldn’t throw algebra out the door, you’d fix it.”
Amendment 31 has a long and growing list of opponents, including several school boards, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, state Attorney General Ken Salazar and Denver auditor Don Mares, and unsurprisingly the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education.
All that was true in California and Arizona, too, Unz said: “It’s pretty much the entire political and educational establishment that come out against these initiatives.”
Colorado will not be a rerun of California and Arizona, Britz vowed. Unz, himself, led English Plus to focus on winnable issues like punitive legal measures and loss of parental choice by making the Colorado version much more toughly worded than its predecessors, he said.
One bright spot for the “no” side is the success English Plus has had turning business leaders against the amendment. The board of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, representing 3,000 area companies, voted Sept. 12 to oppose the amendment.
But Unz said he still isn’t worried. Business leaders will publicly oppose the amendment but then vote for it, he predicted.
Even English Plus’ tactic of saying the amendment will damage schools in ways that have nothing to do with English acquisition has been tried, he said. The “no” side in California spent millions on TV ads that sounded very similar to English Plus’ reasoning, he said.
“It didn’t seem to work very well as an argument in California,” Unz said.