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War of words: Bilingual battle grips schools

On Nov. 5, Colorado voters will be asked to decide whether Colorado’s state Constitution should be amended to require English-only learning in public schools.

Amendment 31 isn’t as clear-cut as a simple vote supporting the use of the English language.

“The implications are enormous,” said Linda Lafferty of Carbondale, a bilingual education teacher.



If Amendment 31 passes, it would require all Colorado public schools to eliminate bilingual, English as a Second Language and dual language learning.

These would be replaced statewide by sheltered English immersion (SEI) language learning.



Under the new mandate, all non-English speaking students would receive one year of intensive English-language instruction. After a year, those students would be mainstreamed into regular classrooms.

Agreeing to oppose

During this election season, candidates may disagree with one another, but on Amendment 31 many Colorado politicians agree.

Incumbent Republican Gov, Bill Owens and his Democratic opponent, Rollie Heath, oppose the amendment, as do U.S. Senate incumbent Wayne Allard and Democratic challenger Tom Strickland.

In the state attorney general’s race, the candidates disagree. Incumbent Attorney General Ken Salazar opposes it, but his challenger, Republican Marti Allbright, supports the amendment.

“Amendment 31 is a crucial first step to ensuring that no child is denied the benefits of our economy due to a lack of language skills,” Allbright said.

The Colorado Association of School Boards has also taken a firm stand against the amendment, as have the Roaring Fork Re-1 and Garfield Re-2 school boards.

Both the amendment’s staunch supporters as well as its avid opponents have the exact same end in sight: English-speaking students.

It’s the methods to get there – and the freedoms and liabilities at stake – that are causing the most intense disagreements.

Proponents of the measure say a one-year immersion program is sufficient for non-English-speaking students to learn the language.

“English immersion is the way to achieve English fluency,” said Kent Leonard, a Libertarian candidate for U.S. Congressional District 1 in Colorado. “We need to remember this is the end goal.”

But language experts like Lafferty vehemently disagree.

“Anyone who knows anything knows that to function at an academic level, it takes seven to 10 years to fully learn a language,” said Lafferty, an ESL and bilingual teacher at Aspen High School.

“Sometimes it takes less, like the president of this year’s Aspen High senior class. He learned English in three years’ time,” she said. “But if you want to make sure a kid drops out of school, don’t give him the support he needs to learn the language.”

All-American concerns

Beyond the question of how to teach English lie deeper issues – American nationalism, immigration laws and taxpayer concerns.

“It’s almost a primordial fear (Americans have) of another language,” said Lafferty.

The amendment is more a result of lax immigration laws than it is about educating children, agree Lafferty and Felicia Trevor, executive director of the Stepstone Center, a social justice center based in Carbondale.

Both women say that U.S. immigration law and Mexico’s exploitive policies towards its citizens have forced many Latino immigrants to leave their own country – for good.

In Colorado, perhaps no community understands the importance of addressing language learning better than Carbondale. In the past 10 years, it’s had the fastest-growing Latino population in the state. Currently, 62 percent of children in Carbondale public schools are Latino.

“Most of the people who come to this country are going to stay,” said Trevor. “So we decide, do we want their children to learn the language or not? If we want them to learn the language, we have to teach it to them in a way that supports them really learning it.”

Issues of paying for educating non-citizens also are also a concern for many.

“There’s a feeling out there about people not wanting to pay taxes to school illegal immigrants,” Trevor said.

“But that’s not true. Only a small fraction of workers are getting paid under the table. All the other workers – if they’re legally here or not – have taxes taken out of their paychecks,” she said. “They rent places to live, and technically, that money goes towards their landlords’ property taxes, and that goes towards public schools. So they are contributing.”

English for the

children – an oxymoron?

Behind Amendment 31 is Ron Unz, a software company owner from Palo Alto, Calif. His organization, English for the Children, spearheaded an earlier initiative, Proposition 227, in California in 1998, and a similar measure, Proposition 203, in Arizona in 2000. Both measures passed, but both are now being contested.

The group’s tag line, “Let’s teach English to all of America’s children and end bilingual education nationwide,” baffles opponents.

“The bottom line is politicians shouldn’t be telling teachers how to do their jobs,” said Trevor. “You can’t teach a foreign language to someone in nine months. Maybe really, really small children can pick up a language that quickly, but for the vast majority, it’s not possible.”

Unz and former Denver Public School board member Rita Montero are now behind Colorado’s English-only amendment. Unz’s organization is also sponsoring a similar proposal in Massachusetts.

“Begun with the best of theoretical intentions over 30 years ago,” said Unz, “bilingual education has proven itself a dismal practical failure. For decades, millions of mostly Hispanic immigrant students have remained trapped in these Spanish-almost-only classes.”

Lafferty takes issue with Unz’s definition of bilingual.

“Bilingual means two languages,” she said. “These classes are not Spanish-almost-only. One way we teach is to `preview-review,’ for example. We’ll have textbooks in Spanish and we’ll read and talk in Spanish, but we’ll only write in English. Then we’ll review the entire lesson in English.

“This is how you teach a language, not immerse kids for a year and then dump them in the regular classroom,” she added.

Loss of control

Trevor said along with promoting an unrealistic language learning timeline, Amendment 31 has three other problems.

“One, it’s very costly,” she said. “Two, it’s extremely punitive towards teachers. And three, it takes away parental and local control for children’s education.”

Even though bilingual, ESL and dual language programs would be eliminated, opponents claim that a complex type of testing would be implemented, costing taxpayers up to an additional $15 million in the first year alone.

The punitive nature of the amendment could also be detrimental to overall public education, Trevor said. One portion of the amendment allows a parent or legal guardian to sue teachers, school board members and administrators if they determine that their child is not being taught in English.

“Based solely on that part of the amendment, it shouldn’t pass,” said Lafferty. “What that means is that the school district will be left wide open for lawsuits. By opening up the ability to sue teachers and other school district employees, we can be assured that districts – already strapped for funds – will never have any money. They’ll be fighting lawsuits instead of educating children.”

Maintaining local control is a big reason why the Roaring Fork and Garfield school boards voted to oppose Amendment 31 at recent board meetings.

“Curricular decisions should not be mandated by the state Constitution,” said Re-1 school board member Tresi Houpt. “This amendment takes away the school board’s ability to review each of our educational programs. What is the best way to educate second language learners? That needs to be determined at the local level.”


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