Original URL:  http://www.denverpost.com/Stories/0,1413,36%257E73%257E947511,00.html

One size doesn't fit all kids
By Gail Schoettler
Denver Post, Sunday, October 27, 2002

I don't care how children learn English. I just want all children to learn English in the way that works best for them. I don't question Ron Unz's good intentions, but I also don't believe a childless millionaire policy wonk knows what is best for every child. Amendment 31, proposed by Unz, is a one-size-fits-all approach, made worse by its punitive provisions against school personnel.

It would be too easy to make an issue of Ron Unz. He's prone to personal attacks on those who disagree with him. He's been labeled a racist for calling Secretary of Education Rod Paige, an African-American, "the dimmest member of the Bush administration," a statement the White House quickly condemned.

But Unz is also the man who challenged then-California Gov. Pete Wilson in the 1994 GOP primary because he was outraged at Wilson's support of Proposition 187, which excluded immigrant children from public school. Unz himself is the son of a single mother who immigrated to the United States speaking no English.

My problem with Unz is his belief that only he knows what is best for children who don't speak English. He has brought his anti-bilingual education crusade to Colorado this year, adding to it harsh punishment for teachers, school officials and board members who are deemed to be recalcitrant or simply acting in error. More on that in a moment.

First, let's deal with the concept that all children who don't speak English can learn better if they are immersed in an English-only classroom for a year. Kids learn in many ways, some faster than others, some by reading, some by listening, some by figuring things out by themselves. Schools need to offer different learning environments to meet their students' varied needs. English immersion may work for some. For others, it may be intimidating and ineffective, leaving them far behind their classmates.

Parents and teachers need to have the flexibility to make different learning choices for each student. That's the whole point behind charter schools, a key vehicle in public education for meeting individual students' needs. Amendment 31 makes that virtually impossible.

Here's why. Although the initiative gives parents the right to seek a waiver from the English immersion program for their children, it also creates legal liability for school personnel. Consequently, what teacher would seek, or administrator or school board grant, such a waiver - even if a child clearly needs it - if they'll face lawsuits from parents?

Amendment 31 is conflicted on this issue. It states that parents must "initiate the waiver process and be provided a full description of the educational materials to be used in the different educational program." So, it is the parents" choice to take their child out of an English immersion program. And yet, it gives these same parents the right to sue, for a 10-year period, the people who grant them the waiver they requested if they later decide that those waivers were wrong or injured their children.

School employees or board members would be held personally liable for attorneys' fees and actual or compensatory damages, presumably if children didn't learn English as their parents expected - even though the parents are the ones who asked for the waiver! What's more, these school employees or board members would be barred from holding any school or public office for five years.

Parents, teachers and schools need more flexibility to meet kids' needs, not less. We don't need engraved permanently in the Colorado Constitution an educational system that may be a complete bust. That's why we have locally elected school boards, accountable to the parents and citizens of their community, setting educational policy. Not the state, not the
federal government - and certainly not some guy from somewhere else with his own agenda for educating our kids.

Gail Schoettler (gailschoettler@email.msn.com) is a former U.S. ambassador, Colorado lieutenant governor and treasurer, Democratic nominee for governor and Douglas County school board member.


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