Opponents poised for battle English-only initiative gets sides fired up
Daily Coloradoan News - Monday, October 14, 2002
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
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
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
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
"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.
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
"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
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
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