Original URL: http://www.rockymountainnews.com/drmn/opinion/article/0,1299,DRMN_38_1541755,00.html

Editorial: Don't override the election results

 Rocky Mountain News November 13, 2002

Amendment 31 on bilingual education failed in Colorado; legislators with a decent respect for the opinions of voters should not be rushing in to change the results.

Rep. Richard Decker, R-Fountain, says he is working on a bill that would make English immersion the standard method for teaching students who enter school with limited English proficiency. He may well come up with a more sensible version of that plan than the initiative sponsored by Ron Unz, but the fact remains that voters said no to Unz's plan and no one knows whether they would have approved a measure with the same goals but fewer defects.

Consider what's likely to happen in Massachusetts, where the Unz bilingual measure, there called Question 2, passed by better than 2-to-1. Legislators there are already declaring their intention to modify the new law, and Governor-elect Mitt Romney said during the campaign that he would support changes. Defying voters like that is simply arrogant. It would be here too.

The acrimonious debate over Amendment 31 did reveal, however, a considerable amount of confusion over terminology and a lack of good data on what's being done now. We know that roughly a third of English-language learners in Colorado are in programs that use their native language for instruction in subjects such as math. These are usually called bilingual programs. But "roughly" is the operative word. Perhaps as much as 10 percent of that group is in dual-immersion programs, a small number but politically significant. Pat Stryker, who donated $3 million to the anti-31
campaign, did so in part to protect a dual-immersion school in Fort Collins.

Of the remaining two-thirds, most are in regular classes for most of the day but attend special English classes for one or two periods. Some are in full immersion programs, where they focus exclusively on learning English until they are ready to move into regular classrooms. Others elect to receive no special services. How many? We don't know. Some districts, the state Department of Education says, don't provide a detailed breakdown of
instructional programs.

There are further complications. Children whose native language is Spanish are much more likely to be in bilingual programs than those who speak less common languages. And Denver is unlike other districts because its programs are subject to a court order.

Districts should be required to provide data in a standardized form that allows for comparisons among districts and compilation of statewide data. If legislation is needed to give the education department authority to standardize terminology and to require reporting, then it should be passed.

Parents should also get better information about the programs. One option that Denver parents can check is, "I want my child to receive support in Spanish, while learning English, if offered at this school." Who wouldn't want that? But would you realize it meant classes taught mostly in Spanish? Parents who want to ensure that their children aren't sidetracked into bilingual classes have to choose the option "no instruction in Spanish." That's misleading, too.

We're relieved Amendment 31 didn't pass. The task now is to improve the teaching of English enough in this state so that we don't see an encore of the amendment in 2004.


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