Original URL: http://www.boulderweekly.com/coverstory.html

Amendment 31 Opposition grows

 Boulder Weekly by Michael A. Rivlin (Editorial@boulderweekly.com)

Ari Wilson, 12, describes the bilingual, dual-immersion education he received at University Hill elementary as "cool." A recent graduate of Uni Hill, Wilson traveled to Guatemala not long ago with his family to put his language skills to the test.

"It was cool, because most people can't understand other languages," says Wilson, who acted as a translator for his father.

Wilson is now in seventh grade and is enrolled in an advanced-level Spanish class. But the education he enjoyed at Uni Hill might soon be eliminated. A proposed amendment to Colorado's constitution could soon make bilingual education illegal. If passed, Amendment 31 would eliminate bilingual schools and create a segregated learning structure for non-English-speaking students, who would be forced to spend a year in English-immersion classes and pass a test before being able to join their peers.

While teachers and schools would be able to waive the requirement for segregated English-immersion classes for some students, the amendment makes teachers and school officials liable for the outcome of any waivers they approve and includes penalties that threaten their livelihoods.

The brain child of California millionaire Ron Unz, Amendment 31 would affect approximately 2,500 children in Boulder Valley School District and as many as 71,000 statewide. Unz, who hopes to eliminate bilingual education nationwide, has successfully promoted similar initiatives in California and Arizona.

Critics say Amendment 31 is too costly, too restrictive and too punitive. Worse, Amendment 31 would eliminate local control of schools and parental choice when it comes to bilingual education.

"This is the most punitive, draconian, anti-parents-rights ballot issue," says John Britz, press secretary for English Plus, a group opposing the proposed amendment. "This initiative goes way too far."

In addition, Amendment 31 would limit flexibility for a structure that periodically needs to be changed to better fit the needs of children.

"The Colorado laws as they sit today, you can change them. If we don't like what happened with this ballot issue, because it's a constitutional amendment, we would need another vote of the people to change a single word," says Britz.

Parental Wants

Amendment 31 was written by Unz and former Denver school board member Rita Montero, members of English for the Children (www.onenation.org). Both feel current bilingual education programs leave Spanish-speaking children behind, making it harder for them to succeed in American society.

English Plus members, teachers and parents say bilingual education works and they have research to support their claim. While bilingual programs serve immigrant students, they appeal to parents of different linguistic backgrounds. English-speaking parents say they want their children to be  bilingual, but they also like the cultural appreciation it teaches their children.

"Being multi-lingual makes you aware of cultural difference," says David Russi, who has two children at Pioneer Elementary. "It makes you open and aware of different ways of looking at things."

Russi, who is a trilingual translator, sees bilingual education as essential.

"Speaking a foreign language can be a stigma for children though," Russi says. "We wanted to make sure the language had value outside the home. So we made the conscious decision at an early age to send them to a bilingual school."

Amanda Elsnes is pursuing a doctorate in bilingual education and has a daughter, Lucia, 7, who attends University Hill elementary. Mexican-born Elsnes has two children who were raised bilingually.

Elsnes says her daughter at first refused to speak Spanish because she saw the way people looked at her mother in grocery stores and immediately felt stigmatized. When the girl went to a bilingual school and spoke to her peers
bilingually, Elsnes says, she changed.

"She loves to speak Spanish now. She interprets for her father and grandfather," Elsnes says. "It's wonderful. I love the education that she's getting."

By the time she was in second grade, Lucia was fully bilingual. Being able to read, write and speak in two languages is something Elsnes values.

"I think it's a gift. It has taken me so many years to learn English, to feel that I have a grasp of the English language," she says. "So many doors are opened to you, meeting people, for work or for pleasure."

Parents say a bilingual education helps prepare their children to be part of an ever-shrinking global community.

"I think it has been wonderful. They really focus on community and no discrimination," says parent Donna Wilson. "I do really believe the kids have more respect for each other. We live in a globally connected world. It's essential kids learn two languages."

Wilson's son Ari was a student at Uni Hill, and she has two daughters who will soon be attending. Wilson also points out that in other countries it is common to learn more than one language and to fall behind on this would be a mistake.

Parents and teachers say bilingual dual-immersion programs work. Dual-immersion differs from English as a second language (ESL) education. In ESL, only one class a day is dedicated to learning English, while dual-immersion students are taught all subjects in both languages. Often specific programs are implemented for the needs of new students who lack
necessary skills for a fully bilingual education. The goal in dual-immersion is to teach every student literacy and fluency in both English and Spanish.

"The programs that our school districts are using are research based and research shows they're working," says a Boulder Valley School official who refused to give her name for fear of reprisals.

"I taught ESL, but when I saw bilingual education I was convinced," says Elsnes. "I feel (my daughter) needs this opportunity." Elsnes says no matter what the outcome of the vote, she will educate her children bilingually but fears other parents will not be able to achieve such goals by themselves.

Still, parents know improvements could be made in bilingual education around the state.

"I'm not going to say bilingual education is perfect. Some programs could be improved without eliminating the entire body of bilingual schools," says Russi.

"Why on Earth would we have a statewide amendment when a couple of schools are not doing a good job?" asks Wilson. "Let's address these problems. But to eliminate stuff we know works... I just don't get it."

Choice or no choice

As Colorado's constitution is written, parents may choose which school they send their children to. Critics of Amendment 31 say for this reason alone the initiative doesn't make sense.

If a Spanish-speaking parent wants to immerse her child in English, she can do that without amending the state constitution, says Britz.

There are few bilingual programs in Colorado. The decision to launch bilingual programs is made by individual school districts based on factors such as funding and feasibility. Parents and school officials fear that if Amendment 31 passes, they will lose control of their own districts.

"If parents want kids to be immersed, they can do that now, today," says Wilson.

Amendment 31 would force all parents to abide by one set of rules, when a variety of options are available to all parents today.

Parents with children in Boulder's bilingual schools see the programs as successful.

"I think it's ridiculous," says Wilson. "Why shouldn't I be able to choose to send my child to a bilingual school if it exists?"

Celest Landry, parent of a daughter who attends Uni Hill, likes the current system.

"I appreciate the fact that we have choice in Colorado," she says.

Others fear that Amendment 31 would disconnect Spanish-speaking parents, schools and children.

"If it passed it would be difficult. We would have to shift and change our whole approach," says Richard Garcia, executive director for Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition, a group that provides resources for parents, such as help with the CSAP registration process. The group also trains parents to be able to help their children with homework.

"The thing we lose is parental connection. We know schools work with parental involvement," says Laurie Herndon, attorney for El Centro Amistad. "Bilingual education allows Latino families to support their kids' education."

Punitive measures

Montero and Unz found that teachers in Arizona and California were waiving the segregated English-immersion requirement for many non-English-speaking students. Unz and Montero felt this amounted to side-stepping the law.

To prevent that from happening in Colorado, Unz and Montero added a provision to Amendment 31 that would enable parents to sue school officials up to 10 years after a waiver was signed if they felt the waiver hurt the education of their child. Unlike doctors, school officials would not be allowed to hold liability insurance. If waivers were signed illegally, school officials would be unable to hold state government jobs and would be unable to work in public schools again.

The punitive language in Amendment 31 has prompted lawyers to recommend that school officials not sign waivers if Amendment 31 is passed.

Montero told a local newspaper, "We said, 'We're going to put something in here so strict that teachers are going to have to think twice before they start violating the law and the will of the voters.'"

Such language has some parents asking why members of Congress, or the state legislature, shouldn't likewise be held lawfully responsible for initiatives they sign that may be potentially harmful to the education of their children.

Britz says such language would make it very hard to attract teachers to Colorado as well.

"What they put together is harmful," says Herndon. "There are no punitive measures when (segregated English immersion) doesn't work."

The punitive language in Amendment 31 has also provoked Gov. Bill Owens to come out against the initiative, saying he backs programs for English proficiency in schools but does not completely agree with the language in the initiative.

"It's a shame that such a worthy goal to help Colorado's children is being sidetracked by unnecessary language that, ultimately, is a fatal flaw," says Owens.

Between the lines

The punitive language of Amendment 31 has many parents wondering what the initiative is really about.

Some opponents of the initiative say the real problem with bilingual education might not be that it is failing too many students, but that it is succeeding. When a child learns another language, it opens her eyes to another culture and another way of thinking. This might intimidate people who want one culture to dominate, critics suggest.

"Unz is very smart," says Elsnes. "He understands how effective bilingual education is, so I think he is trying to keep them down."

Unz makes no bones of his opposition to multicultural curricula in schools, which he feels "glorify obscure ethnic figures at the expense of the giants of American history" and which has "no place in a melting pot framework." Nor is he shy about his support of a "new melting pot" concept for American society. He has gone on the record supporting "assimilation" of
immigrants into the American mainstream. Lack of competency in English hinders assimilation.

But what Unz sees as an effort to turn all Americans into one English-speaking nation, others see as nothing short of ethnocentrism.

"On a very personal level, my fears are more about what this means for society at large, the attitude that the state of Colorado projects about people of other cultures and languages," says Russi.

"It offends me that people think others who speak another language are not patriotic," Elsnes says. "We can be patriotic in two languages. You can say beautiful things about your country in any language."

Many parents who oppose Amendment 31 fear discussing the racial ramifications of such an initiative and say the initiative is so poorly written that they need not bring race into the discussion. Still, many question Unz' intentions.

"One has to wonder what makes Ron Unz tick. He didn't need to say those things he said about Secretary Paige," says Britz referring to a series of bigoted comments Unz made about U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who is black.

Racial injustice is latent in this initiative, according to Russi. "English-only laws are a problem by nature," he says.

With the recent donation of $3 million to English Plus and Gov. Owens publicly opposing Amendment 31, parents and proponents of bilingual education are feeling upbeat.

"I feel very confident we will soundly defeat this amendment," says Garcia. "I think we are going to be the state that stops Ron Unz in his tracks."

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