Boulder – According to a recent Denver Post poll asking Coloradans to rank the importance of 20 issues facing our state, bilingual education reform came in dead last. Only 0.2 percent of those asked felt that this is the top issue facing the state. We apparently don’t see a need for the state to intervene in local decision-making about how to best educate students whose first language is not English.
But that will soon change.
Hundreds of thousands of Coloradans may soon become convinced of the need for the state to mandate exactly how schools should educate these limited-English speakers. This change of opinion could happen because lots of money will be spent on a campaign to persuade us to abolish bilingual education.
This is what happened in California in 1998, when multimillionaire Ron Unz spent more than $1 million to bankroll that state’s abolishment of bilingual education. Now Unz and other opponents of bilingual education will put a copycat initiative on Colorado’s November 2002 ballot, with Unz promising to fund the campaign as necessary to ensure its passage. As part of that campaign, voters can expect to be inundated with horror stories about how bilingual education has sacrificed English at the expense of maintaining Spanish-language proficiency. Supporters of bilingual education will be denounced as foolish and even demonized as un-American. This all happened in California.
But there are many good reasons why Coloradans are not itching to follow California’s lead. Current Colorado law does not mandate bilingual education or any other particular method for educating English-language learners. So each district chooses its own approach. This is consistent with the state’s long-standing tradition of local control over curriculum. The Unz initiative would replace this community decision-making with one uniform requirement for the state.
Moreover, most parents whose children attend schools that do use bilingual education to teach English probably support the practice. Bilingual education can take several different forms, but the basic idea is straightforward: Students who are limited in English are given instruction and training in their primary language while they are also taught to read, write and speak English.
This serves three important goals for the education of students whose first language is not English.
It makes sure that these students leave our schools speaking and writing in fluent English.
It provides them with a strong education in core subject areas, such as English, math and science.
It takes advantage of the language strength that the students bring to the schools from their homes, helping them to leave school with language abilities in both English and their native tongues.
In practice, some bilingual education programs do extremely well and some do not. One reason is that Colorado, like other states, suffers from a severe shortage of skilled bilingual teachers.
So bilingual programs can indeed be improved. But improvement is not what Unz or his Colorado allies have in mind. Instead, they want to completely scrap bilingual programs and replace them with essentially nothing. They favor a sink-or-swim approach that places students with a limited proficiency in English in regular classrooms along with fully English proficient students, with little support and no assistance in their native language. The theory here, which is not supported by any reliable research, is that the students will learn English sooner and will not be damaged by falling behind in core subject areas or by losing their native language ability.
This immersion approach is among the options that Colorado schools can now choose from. As the Denver Post poll demonstrates, Coloradans do not think this system of community decision-making needs fixing. But that does not matter. A wealthy Californian wants us to change, and he’s the one with the money.
Kevin G. Welner is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s School of Education and co-director of CU-Boulder’s Education and the Public Interest Center. Guest commentary submissions of 650 words may be sent to The Post editorial page.