Commitment to school choice shouldn't waver
The Denver Post, November 1, 2002
By Tomas Romero
I oppose Amendment 31. It would be arrogant for me to decide how to educate a
child in Colorado Springs, Holyoke, Highlands Ranch or on the Ute Mountain Ute
Reservation. People should trust their neighbors who are elected to local
I support choice. In 1994, I co-authored the first charter school proposal
accepted by Denver Public Schools. More recently, I helped collect more than 500
signatures in support of another charter, the Denver Arts and Technology
Academy. And I applaud the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in favor of a
voucher program in Cleveland, Ohio.
I spent the first 18 years of my life being served by two monopolies: the small
neighborhood grocery store I frequented as a boy and my school system. Consumers
receive greater value with a free-market model. So why are competition and
choice so desirable when it comes to buying cars, clothing and cornflakes, but
not when it comes to public education?
Vouchers, charter schools and the contracting of services all send a clear
message of dissatisfaction with the status quo and one-size-fits-all attitudes.
They suggest that choice is needed. But too often, the response from public
schools and teachers' unions has been to circle the wagons or attack those
suggesting new ideas.
Bessemer Elementary School in Pueblo used the English as a Second Language
methodology and other innovations to increase third-grade student CSAP reading
scores from 12 percent proficiency to 74 percent between 1996 and 1999. Says
Rhonda Holcomb, the district's director of literacy and language acquisition,
"We identified necessary success
elements for high achievement. It was a local decision." But under Amendment 31,
Ron Unz's English-only proposal, ESL would not be allowed anymore in Colorado.
Fort Collins' Harris Elementary prefers a dual-language approach. Harris is not
a quasi-private boutique school - more than 70 percent of its 388 students are
Hispanic. By the sixth grade, 58 percent of its bilingual students (compared to
14 percent statewide) test proficient in reading English.
Harris and Bessemer are proof that being poor or a minority does not preclude
success. But that's not to say every bilingual-education system is perfect.
What I am going to say next will disappoint friends: Bilingual education needs
to be re-examined - to see what needs revision. The original mandate of the 1977
state law was to implement a transitional program. But some schools have strayed
from this mission. Colorado has hundreds of professional, compassionate
bilingual educators. Their first allegiance should be to children and not to
political ideology, unions or one methodology. I call on all educators, citizens
and members of both political parties to join in thoroughly examining this
issue. Not every ESL, immersion or bilingual program is successful. No
curriculum should be accorded untouchable sacred-cow status.
Professor Carlos Leal and I co-authored Colorado's first bilingual education
program for the University of Northern Colorado in 1969. Carlos recently called
me, saying, "Linda Chavez's website says you wrote, 'Too many Latino children
are being held hostage by bilingual education lobbyists."' My reply: "That's no
error, Carlos, I said that."
Some Latinos harbor bitter memories of being "immersed" in English. They
remember corporal punishment and being demeaned. My learning experience was
different. Wattenburg was a poor, 100-student K-8 school district in Weld
County. I spoke Spanish and some English when I started the first grade. I
devoured books, and by the fifth grade
I'd read Pearl S. Buck's "The Good Earth," John Steinbeck and John O'Hara.
A wonderful teacher, Orian B. Ewing, encouraged me. "You will go to college,"
Did I receive favored treatment? No.
Five years ago I was managing a fast-food restaurant. Martha was my best
employee and an obvious choice for promotion. I encouraged her to assume more
responsibilities. She refused, saying, "Tengo miedo hablar en Ingles." (I am
afraid to speak English.) Then came the kicker: "I hope my daughter learns to
I asked, "How can your daughter not speak English? She was born in the United
States and is 11 years old." Martha's answer: "She is in a bilingual program."
Latino students are falling behind. But it would be irresponsible folly to
reject all options, including ESL, some sort of flexible immersion or
The father of American conservatism, Barry Goldwater, would not have approved of
this punitive, no-substitutions-allowed menu for reform. Every family and every
school district should make its own choice.
Tomas Romero is a Colorado native who is active in education and political