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Amendment 31 would take away choice
Proposal goes too far in trying to change bilingual education
Originally published Oct. 7, 2002 - Fort Collins Coloradoan

Amendment 31 is a good idea gone bad.

Proponents of the November ballot issue, which would do away with bilingual education as we know it in Colorado, claim it would remove bureaucratic barriers to learning English for non-English-speaking students in our schools. On the surface, that sounds like a good idea. Immigrant students and others who are not proficient in English must learn the language if they hope to prosper in this country and be part of mainstream society. Facilitating that learning is a matter of state concern.

However, this proposal goes too far. In their zeal to bring about change in English as a second language, or ESL, programs, proponents would impose on the entire state a one-size-fits-all approach to language education. The amendment would require all students to be taught in English. Students who do not speak English would be put into one-year "sheltered" immersion programs in which they would be taught English and other subjects. After that they would be expected to be ready to move into regular classrooms. It's a sink-or-swim approach that may or may not work for many students, especially older ones. It also would do away with programs such as the popular Harris Bilingual Immersion School in Fort Collins, which instructs all students in English and Spanish.

The amendment would take away the control of the state's 178 elected school boards over local educational policy. The cost of implementing the amendment's mandates is not known - opponents estimate it would at least $25 million - and how it would be funded is not defined.

The amendment leaves school board members, administrators and teachers who "willfully and repeatedly" violate its restrictions liable to lawsuits. It even bans them from teaching and holding public office. That would make it tough for anyone to pursue alternative paths of language education.

If approved, this proposal would be part of the state constitution. Education policy should not be part of the constitution, which has been tampered with far too much in recent years. Its proper place is state law, which can be more easily adapted by the Legislature to keep pace with societal and educational changes.

The aim of the amendment is to keep children from getting stuck in ESL classes for years at a time without ever properly learning English or being integrated into schools' general populations.

Some parents claim this has been a persistent problem, especially in the Denver Public Schools system. Latino parents in Denver say their children have been stuck in Spanish-speaking "ghettos" and their attempts to change the system have been blocked.

We don't doubt problems exist with some ESL programs. In Denver, a federal court order is in effect to address the problems at DPS. However, Denver's problems do not necessarily carry across the entire state, and they should not lead to the trampling of parents' rights to make educational choices for their children.

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