Original URL: http://www.denverpost.com/Stories/0,1002,36%7E148%7E,00.html

Bilingual deception

Al Knight
Denver Post
Sunday, October 13, 2002

An old joke has it that "bilingual" is a word that means "does not speak English." The joke was inspired by the manifest failures of the nation's bilingual education programs. These programs often consigned children to years of separate instruction in their native language. When transferred to classes taught in English, many of these students were so far behind, they couldn't catch up.

Voters will have the opportunity Nov. 5 to officially abandon this failed educational experiment by voting for Amendment 31. A similar measure is on the Massachusetts ballot this year, and two other states - California and Arizona - have already mandated English language instruction.

Amendment 31 requires that, with rare exceptions, so-called English learners be taught in English. The proposed model is a year or less of what is called "English immersion," or intense language instruction.

Opponents have employed two questionable approaches. The first is an attempt to convince Coloradans that bilingual education isn't a failure. Mass hypnosis may be the only way to sell this belief. Recently published dropout figures for Hispanic students show the rates here are considerably above the national average, and it simply defies logic to now claim that the answer to this deplorable record is an increased dosage of "more of the same."

The second approach is to chant certain slogans over and over again as if the words in these slogans contained some mystical, magical meaning. The slogans are "parental choice" and "local control." Local control is a concept imbedded in the state  constitution, but Amendment 31 does not eliminate local control of instruction. It simply requires that a failed technique not be employed. It leaves plenty of room for a local district to devise ways to teach its "English learners." As for parental choice, when has it been a rule that parents can require school districts to operate instruction programs that are manifest failures?

A number of the amendment's opponents, including Gov. Bill Owens, have cited a single provision in the amendment and labeled it a "fatal flaw."

The governor is mistaken and is ignoring the very important matter of how to make sure that individual administrators and teachers don't undermine the amendment's purpose. In California some administrators have simply decided to subvert the law by continuing to offer bilingual instruction to students who clearly are not intended to receive it. In fact, bilingual instruction has been reduced by only about two-thirds, leaving tens of thousands of students still attending classes. These educators, by the way, make no secret of the fact that they seek to avoid the dictates of the law.

What to do?

The sponsors of Amendment 31 included language that makes individual teachers and administrators financially liable if they grant, "in error," the request of parents who ask to have their children enrolled in bilingual classes. This is not, as opponents suggest, a Draconian provision. The amendment is clear. Exceptions to "English immersion" are to be rare. Only three categories of students can request a waiver. Administrators, school board members and teachers can easily avoid problems by following the law. A parent who files suit would have to prove both that the waiver they received was granted "in error" and that the student suffered actual harm as a result. These aren't easy burdens to carry in court. Importantly, without some enforcement provisions, administrators, board members and teachers would be virtually
invited to undermine the intent of the amendment.

Opponents will not be using any of their considerable war chest explaining to voters why Hispanic students are unable to master English when exposed to intensified English instruction. The implication that this group can't learn English and master recognized educational standards is an implication rightly resented by Hispanic and non-Hispanic citizens alike.

Failed educational programs, like bilingual instruction, have no right to eternal life. Coloradans have every right to dictate how taxes should be spent and can rest assured that it is entirely possible to have parental choice, local control of education and Amendment 31 all at the same time.

Al Knight (alknight@mindspring.com) is a member of the Denver Post editorial board. His
column appears Wednesday and Sunday.

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