Amendment 31: Who’s in charge of education, community or state?
September 27, 2002
English only or English y Espanol?
For some local school officials, a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would virtually eliminate bilingual education is really about choice on a local, and parental, level.
Amendment 31, which goes before Colorado voters on the November ballot, would change how students who do not speak English are taught the language.
According to the amendment’s text, children would be educated “using the English language in their classrooms.” The amendment would require “children who are learning English to be placed in an English immersion program.”
The immersion program would last one year, and if students are successful in that program, they would be placed in “ordinary classrooms,” the ballot language says.
Some students would be able to get waivers, but, the amendment states, they will be “very difficult to obtain because the school can grant them only in very restrictive circumstances and can deny them for any reason or no reason, thereby reducing the likelihood that bilingual education will be used.”
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Fred Wall, superintendent of the Roaring Fork School District, said he prefers local control, rather than this sort of statewide mandate.
“The problem with this is it sounds good, but state referendums to control how schools deliver instruction … really, by the constitution, [it] should be a local school board prerogative,” he said.
The Roaring Fork district serves a population that is roughly 40 percent bilingual or non-English-speaking, Wall said.
“Personally, I think there’s a lot of benefit to having students get English immersion and get into the English language as quickly as possible,” he said. “I don’t have any problem with that. But not to the detriment of bilingual programs that have proved to be effective.”
But Amendment 31 supporters believe bilingual education doesn’t work.
In a debate published on a Rocky Mountain News Web site, Ron Unz defended the idea behind the amendment. Unz is a California businessman who has spearheaded similar efforts in that state and Arizona.
“In less than four years after the passage of the initiative in California the test scores of over a million students have nearly doubled,” Unz said in the debate.
Supporters of the amendment say most immigrant children arrive in the United States at a young age. Younger students pick up English faster and so wouldn’t have any problems with English immersion, proponents say.
But Wall said his district doesn’t “see that.”
“We see [age] ranges from all over the board, from young families to kids that come in and they’re in high school,” he said.
For Linda Lafferty, an ESL (English as a second language) teacher at Aspen High, the issue comes down to the students themselves and how comfortable they are in a learning environment. The one-year program would not be nearly enough instruction for some Spanish-speaking students, she said, leading to a frustrating educational experience for everyone.
“What it does is limit our ability to work with kids. What happens is if you say, ‘OK, they only have one year, that sounds just great. We’re going to lift the bar a little higher,’ a lot of kids can’t make it,” she said. “They either drop out or they get dumped into mainstream classes. It lowers the level of instruction for those mainstream classes, it frustrates the teacher, it frustrates the kids, humiliates them. People look and say, ‘What’s this kid doing in this class?'”
Using both English and Spanish, Lafferty said she can get her charges up to speed with other students. Take away Spanish, she said, and the students’ progress would slow to a crawl.
“I would probably go a quarter as fast, and they would not get the content, and they wouldn’t be prepared to go into a regular class. [The students] would be frustrated, [and] I’d have to water down the curriculum so much,” she said. “When you teach only in English, because they can’t understand what you’re saying, you have to make it so simple. Whereas if I can teach bilingually, I can give them good, hard content. I can give them a real course.”
But the amendment language declares, “The public schools of Colorado often do an inadequate job of educating immigrant children, wasting financial resources on costly experimental native language programs whose failure over past decades is demonstrated by the current high drop-out rates.”
Wall said the Roaring Fork School District is doing everything it can to help its 1,200 ESL students. The district has 50 ESL teachers, 10 ESL aides and eight sections of bilingual education, he said.
“I think the drop-out rate is for a number of reasons. It’s a complex issue. If we have students that come in with us that are very young, the chances of them succeeding educationally are very high,” Wall said. “If we have students that come in when they’re freshmen, sophomores or juniors and they have very little language, it’s very hard for them to gain the language they need to get a high school education.”
The school district started a program this year “that would, on a large scale, match almost what Amendment 31 is asking,” he said. “Our second-language students spend a lot of their day getting English instruction only, so we are immersing them in English.”
It is an issue that travels outside the classroom and into families’ homes, as well. Luis Polar, editor of the valley’s Spanish-language newspaper, La Mision, said Latino students who keep their Spanish ability also keep their cultural ties intact.
He said some in the Latino community “want their kids to be able to learn two languages and not lose their Spanish. I know there are some folks that when the kids are being raised, they forget to speak Spanish because they get immersed into an English type of education. Then they forget their own tongue, and I don’t think that is the way it should go.”
Polar agreed with Lafferty that immersing students too quickly into English can be detrimental.
“I think students will be lost if they get immersed too quickly into an English-only program,” he said. “There needs to be a gradual education of the English language. I also believe that having a bilingual education allows kids to develop more of a sense for mathematics and cognitive thinking.”
Unfortunately, he said, the majority of Latinos here are not aware of Amendment 31, and a lot of them cannot vote in any case.
“We’re trying to encourage people to register to vote,” he said.
Wall, who has been the superintendent for five years, said he has seen “increases in Latino numbers each year I’ve been here.”
The election is Nov. 5.
[Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]