Original URL: http://www.coloradoan.com/news/stories/20021014/news/285987.html

Opponents poised for battle English-only initiative gets sides fired up

Daily Coloradoan News - Monday, October 14, 2002

Habla Ingles?

That's the question at the heart of Amendment 31.

Proponents of the initiative, which would require non-English speaking children to take part in a one-year immersion program, say children new to this country are not being taught English fast enough; opponents say this initiative will make bad situations worse and ruin programs that are working.

"People who read it see that it has nothing to do with learning English and much more to do with a costly, ineffective program," said Denise Walters, co-president of the local chapter of the anti-amendment 31 group English Plus. "Most people who say they are for it usually haven't read it or taken the time to learn about it. They say, 'Immigrants should learn to speak English.' We agree. But we think parents and local school boards should work together to decide how that happens."

Teachers predict problems

Local teachers say the amendment would throw their classrooms into "chaos."

"(If this passes,) children who are coming from other countries would be put right into my classroom," said Jeannie Craft, a first-grade teacher at Irish Elementary School, 515 Irish Drive. Irish currently has a bilingual program, but without it, Craft worries these children, "would be immersed in English with no support."

While struggling to learn to speak and read in English, students also would struggle with math, social studies and science, she said.

In bilingual and English as a Second Language programs, students are taught these subjects in both languages so they don't have to forfeit learning to add because they don't know what the word "add" means.

"This law truly isn't best for children," Craft said.

Proponents say it works elsewhere

The man spearheading the initiative, Ron Unz, contends similar programs in other states are working.

In less than two years, the test scores of more than 1 million immigrant students in California, where immersion is used, rose an average of 40 percent, Unz stated on the organization's Web site.

English Plus members counter that claim. They say California's test changed when the immersion law took effect, and that change artificially boosted the scores.

They also say numerous other changes were made to education laws that year, and those changes could have resulted in students' better scores. Also, for three years, less than 10 percent of those California students have been able to transition out of the immersion program to mainstream classes, Walters said. That's a 90 percent failure rate by Unz's own standard.

Fort Collins resident Jerry Wharton, 73, said he supports the measure.

"There are too many children who don't speak English," Wharton said. "Whatever they are doing, it's not working. If immersion can do it faster, then that's what we should be doing."

Battle of the bucks

When the English Plus campaign began, even the group's own leaders said support for the amendment was strong and that it would be an uphill battle against deep pockets.

Unz, a millionaire software developer from California, already had pushed through similar initiatives in California and Arizona and is currently campaigning for an immersion law in Massachusetts.

A small budget didn't hold much promise for English Plus, Walters said. In late September, though, a $3 million donation from Fort Collins philanthropist Pat Stryker gave the group a much needed boost. The funds enabled opponents to get their message on television ads.

Poll numbers in flux

Even with the campaign, according to the latest polls, more Coloradoans still support than oppose Amendment 31, 48 percent to 36 percent.

However, support for the initiative has dropped 20 points since a similar survey was conducted in August. Talmey-Drake Research & Strategy Inc. of Boulder conducted both surveys for the Rocky Mountain News and KCNC-TV.

The most recent poll also noted 14 percent are undecided and 2 percent refused to answer.

Local and state support for the measure also are not easily found.

Strong bipartisan support against the measure includes the Fort Collins City Council, Fort Collins Mayor Ray Martinez, Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar and Colorado Gov. Bill Owens.

Owens said of the amendment, "The devil is in the details."

The details, opponents say, are that there is no funding provided to school districts to create immersion programs at each school.

Teachers, administrators and school districts could be sued for providing bilingual education as well as for denying a child a waiver to take part in bilingual education.

"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," said Owens, referring to the amendment's threat of lawsuits against educators that could cost them money and their jobs.

Opposition optimistic

Unz said the threat of legal action and the ban on teaching bilingual programs, were added to counter opposition from the educational establishment.

"There was a lot of resistance in California," he said. "There are still 150,000 children in these (bilingual) programs, which is a lot more than there should be. We wanted to make sure there would be less resistance in Colorado."

This summer, Poudre School District Board of Education came out against the measure after conducting a study that showed 31's passage would require the district to spend an additional $1 million just for new teachers, PSD Superintendent Don Unger said.

The continuing level of poll support has local bilingual school principal Larry Slocum confused.

"No one supports it, but it's still leading in the polls," said Slocum, principal of Harris Bilingual Immersion Elementary School, 501 E. Elizabeth St. "When the League of Women Voters wanted to have a debate here and in Greeley they
couldn't find anyone to be on the pro-31 side."

Slocum also said he felt for the first time last week the measure could be defeated.

In fact, the pro-Amendment 31 campaign has had an interesting side effect to the school, he said.

The school's waiting list has grown by 150 names since Amendment 31 was announced -- it's at more than 380 students now, Slocum said.

"Every time Rita Montero is quoted, we add another 20 names," Slocum said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.  Originally published Monday, October 14, 2002  By STACY NICK StacyNick@coloradoan.com


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