Original URL: http://www.denverpost.com/Stories/0,1413,36%257E73%257E962116,00.html

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
school boards.

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," she insisted.

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 speak English."

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 dual-language.

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 affairs.



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