DALLAS—Denver resident and longtime Chicana activist Rita Montero is bracing for the pinata treatment. The crepe paper starts to fly whenever independent-minded Latinos begin to think for themselves and challenge liberal orthodoxy.
Montero is convinced that bilingual education as practiced in the Denver public schools is harming Hispanic students by not teaching them English fast enough. Latino parents who complain and want their children pulled from bilingual classes can count on fierce resistance from school administrators intent on maintaining the flow of millions in federal bilingual education funds into district coffers.
I have been told by administrators and academics and others who profit handsomely from the bilingual industry that immigrant parents opposed to bilingual education are uninformed or ignorant or lack the intellectual capacity to decide what’s best for their children. And I have wondered whether that was an example of misguided liberalism–or racism.
A former member of the Denver school board, Montero was an early supporter of bilingual education and the theory behind it–that children with limited proficiency in English learn best when they are educated in their native language. Aware of horror stories from the 1940s of Mexican students being spanked or having their mouths washed out with soap for speaking Spanish in class, Montero took comfort in the idea that schools could be a less alienating place that preserved students’ culture.
But theory is one thing; practice another. In the mid-’90s, Montero got a crash course in how bilingual education is rooted not in culture and language but in money and power. Her own son was assigned to a bilingual class–even though he was fluent in English.
She learned that it is infinitely easier for Hispanic students to get into bilingual programs than to get out of them. (A school’s allotment of bilingual funding is dictated by the number of students it ropes into the program.) When school officials added Montero’s son to the bilingual rolls, the mother demanded that the boy be removed. Officials balked. Montero had to move her son to another school.
Even at that point, Montero believed bilingual education could be effective if implemented correctly, and she worked with other frustrated Hispanic parents to mend it, not end it.
They proposed a time limit in which students get bilingual instruction for three years and then go back into the mainstream. But Denver school officials resisted capping the program, trying to suppress a growing rebellion with what Montero calls intimidation and bullying. In one outrageous instance, she noted, a parent who complained about bilingual education was summoned to a meeting with school officials to assess whether her child should be placed in special education classes.
“To be frank with you, I think bilingual education could have worked once,” Montero said. “But now I don’t think it ever will.”
Outgunned, Montero and the other rebel parents looked for help. They found it in Ron Unz, the software millionaire who helped bankroll successful ballot initiatives to dismantle bilingual education in California and Arizona. Unz has agreed to pay for the gathering of the more than 80,000 signatures necessary to put the issue on Colorado’s November 2002 ballot. (Disclosure: For a few months in 1997, before I became a full-time journalist, I served as a media consultant for the “English for the Children” effort in California.)
Denver school officials have not gone on record opposing the initiative, although Elaine Berman, president of the Denver school board, has expressed to The Denver Post her preference for local control and the tailoring of bilingual programs “around the individual needs of the students.”
Other bilingual supporters are not so subtle, including some culturally insecure Latinos who still believe that bilingual education is good ointment for soothing old wounds.
Given Montero’s history of leftist social activism, it is difficult for her detractors to vilify her as they have other bilingual opponents: as a right-wing “sell-out.” Instead, they swing at her from the right, calling her, according to an article posted on a pro-bilingual Web site, a dangerous left-wing radical with a checkered past. That past includes protesting police brutality, demonstrating against the Vietnam War, organizing farm workers and picketing supermarkets in support of the United Farm Workers’ grape boycott in the 1970s.
Now, Montero is once again sticking up for the little guy against entrenched and powerful interests. In that respect, her detractors are right. She is dangerous. Because in this fight, she’ll force them to defend the indefensible.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a syndicated columnist based in Dallas.
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