Most everyone who supports the cause of public education in the United States agrees that teaching English proficiency to all students is a primary goal. But in the case of students whose first language is not English, the largest group being Spanish-speakers, how best to achieve that goal is a complicated and contentious issue.
That is why, on Nov. 5, Colorado voters will have to decide whether to approve or defeat a proposed constitutional amendment that would radically change the way "English learners" -- children who are not yet proficient in English -- are taught.
In Colorado, approximately 70,000 of the state's public school students -- 9 percent -- are enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, where instruction is primarily in English with some native-language assistance provided; in Bilingual Education Programs, where students are taught in their native language while learning English; or Dual Language Programs, where subjects are taught in two languages and students are expected to become proficient in both languages.
Students in bilingual programs are expected to be prepared for regular English classroom instruction in about three years, although that estimation varies depending on age and other circumstances.
Amendment 31 supporters contend that bilingual education programs, while well intended when they were conceived and ordered by the courts back in the 1970s, don't work and need to be replaced with mandatory English immersion programs where students would spend a year learning English, then integrate into mainstream classrooms.
Those supporters, working under the banner English for the Children of Colorado, are a small coalition of parents and activists, most in Denver, supported by California software millionaire Ron Unz.
Unz, who holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from Harvard, Cambridge and Stanford, has successfully commandeered similar measures in California in 1998 and in Arizona in 2000.
In both states, the "English" or "English only" measures won by large margins. This year, in addition to investing $350,000 in getting Colorado's proposed amendment on the ballot through a petition drive and now supporting the campaign, Unz also helped launch a ballot measure in Massachusetts that will, if approved by voters there, dismantle bilingual programs in that state.
Yuppies and Chuppies
Amendment 31's chief spokesperson in Colorado is Rita Montero, an outspoken Latino activist, former Denver Board of Education member, organizer for the La Raza Unida Party during the 1970s, now chairperson of English for the Children of Colorado.
"We're looking at the elimination of bilingual education," said Montero. "It's been in place for 30 years and it's a complete failure. Our children fall behind and almost never catch up."
Montero and "about 30 other parents" joined together last year to ask for Unz's help in Colorado after protesting bilingual programs in Denver, which are currently under federal court order to increase the amount of English instruction in the classroom but which, according to Montero, are not complying.
She dismisses dual-language instruction as a new theoretical model that so far has no empirical data to show its effectiveness.
"It's an enrichment process that the Yuppies and Chuppies [Chicano Yuppies] have availed themselves to," she said.
Colorado millionairess Rita Stryker, who last week contributed $3 million to the No on 31 campaign, has a child who is a student in a dual-language program in Fort Collins' Poudre School District.
Montero is characterized by Unz, in one of his weekly columns on the Web site
www.onenation.org, as someone who "led the campaign in Colorado to defeat the 'English-only' movement of the late 1980s, which she perceived as xenophobic and anti-immigrant and she turned against bilingual education when she discovered through the experience of her own son that it was destroying the education lives of countless Latino children."
Both Montero and Unz have likened the battle for English immersion to earlier battles in the U.S. to integrate racially segregated schools.
"One of the more bizarre aspects of the bilingual education debate is that by an objective analysis, these programs constitute a system of racially-segregated Spanish-only classes for Latino students, not all that different from those provided to most black students prior to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954," said Unz in a recent position paper.
But opponents of Amendment 31 say Unz's ego and Montero's "vendetta" drive their mission, which would effectively restrict parental choice and local control of education and would attempt to apply a "one-size-fits-all" curriculum to all students with limited English, restricting schools' ability to offer innovative language programs.
In addition, opponents say the proposed English immersion program of one year is too rigid. The needs of individual students won't be met and the proposal's added layer of testing requirements for English learners could cost school districts millions of dollars as well as uncounted time taken away from classroom teaching.
They also attack what they characterize as the amendment's "punitive" measures that would hold teachers, administrators or school board members open to legal action for up to 10 years if waivers are granted to students who opt out of English immersion and the waivers are later determined to have "injured" the education of the child.
The amendment's "punitive" measures, which were not included in ballot language in California or Arizona, led Colorado Gov. Bill Owens to join the opposition to Amendment 31 last Tuesday.
"Proposals to make proficiency in English a top priority in our schools have merit, and I support them," Owens said in a statement announcing his position. "Unfortunately, Amendment 31 is strikingly different than English immersion proposals enacted in California and Arizona."
Denver political consultant John Britz, spokesperson for the English Plus campaign opposing Amendment 31, agrees.
"This is not the California ballot issue," said Britz. "The Colorado ballot issue is even more punitive than Question 2 in Massachusetts. Ron [Unz] will argue that it is a corrective mechanism because in California so many people waived out of the [English immersion] program.
"Frankly, it allows our campaign, and interested voters, to speculate what their real motivation here is."