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School board rejects Amendment 31

Veronica Whitney

The commissioners and school board are urging voters to reject the amendment, a change to the state Constitution that would eliminate bilingual and dual-immersion programs in public schools.

“The Board of Education shares the belief advocated by proponents of Amendment 31 that every student needs to be fluent in English to be successful in the United States, but also believes that problems associated with this proposed constitutional amendment far outweigh any benefits,” the school board resolution says.

Amendment 31, which would affect about 70,000 students in Colorado, mandates that non-English speakers go through one year of intensive language instruction conducted in English and then be put into regular classrooms.

“I think a lot of people haven’t read the fine line,” school board member Louise Funk said before the resolution passed Wednesday. “The punitive aspects are absurd. Also, I don’t feel the proponents’ campaign is presenting the complete facts. You can’t force Amendment 31 on every school district.”

The “fine line” includes a lawsuit provision that would allow parents to sue schools to enforce the amendment.

Under the amendment, a parent can ask for a waiver to allow their child to continue in the English immersion class after one year. One reason a child would get a waiver is if he or she had a physical or mental learning impairment.

But the amendment also includes a provision saying parents given a waiver would have that legal right for 10 years to sue the school administrators who granted the waiver to them. Parents would have to conclude that the waivers were granted in error and their child’s education was harmed by remaining in English immersion –the same program that they asked their child be kept in.

The school administrator who signed the waiver would be personally liable to the extent that, if found guilty, they would be barred from working in Colorado government for five years.

“We are taking this position so that people get informed in regards to the lawsuit issue and other negative aspects of the amendment,” said board member Scott Green.

All school board members said they agree it is vital for voters to get informed on the pros and cons of Amendment 31 before Election Day.

The school board’s decision follows several school boards across the state that already have urged voters to reject Amendment 31. Those districts include Denver, Roaring Fork Valley, Boulder, Poudre Valley and Jefferson County.

Voters in Massachusetts this election are facing a similar decision on bilingual education. Similar propositions passed in California in 1998 and in Arizona in 2000.

“My position is reflected in the wording of the resolution, which supports quality instruction and higher achievement including second-language learners,” said Eagle County School District Superintendent Mel Preusser, who supports the school board’s decision.

The commissioners’ resolution also named the lawsuit component as a major flaw of Amendment 31. Their resolution also says an additional layer of testing will be needed if Amendment 31 passes, which could mean further administrative expense estimated at $16 million annually.

“I’m against it and I agree with the governor (Bill Owens) that it has several fatal flaws on it including the lawsuit provision, lack of choice, and segregation,” Commissioner Tom Stone said. “Also there’s the lack of funding. Where is the money going to come from? With no additional funding, schools will have to quit other programs.”

The commissioner’s resolution also criticizes the amendment for restricting parental choice and local control of education.

“I’m against it because it doesn’t benefit all the students,” said Commissioner Arn Menconi. “It’s punitive to the teachers and it doesn’t allow choice for the parents.”

Heather Lemon, an Eagle-Vail candidate for the state House of Representatives, said voters should be careful because Amendment 31 is a change to the state Constitution.

“I’m against it,” Lemon said. “People here know how to run these programs. Nobody from California should be able to tell us what we should do in our schools.”

The initiative in Colorado is headed by Rita Montero, a former Denver school board member who says sheltered English immersion programs are the best way to teach English. The initiative, however, is backed by California millionaire Ron Unz. Unz was behind Proposition 227, which replaced bilingual education in California in 1998.

“I think people who are for and against this bill have the same goal in mind – get the students proficient in English as soon as possible,” Stone said. “However I’m not convinced that this is the best solution to that.”

The school board’s resolution states:

On November 5, 2002, Colorado voters will vote on a proposed ballot initiative to amend the Colorado Constitution by adding a Section 18 to Article IX entitled English Language Education for Children in Public Schools. The board of Education of the Eagle County School District RE 50J expresses in this Resolution its deep concerns with certain provisions of Amendment 31 balanced against its strong desire for all students, including English Language Learners, to achieve academic success as quickly as possible. This amendment requires children to be taught by using the English language in their classrooms and requires children who are learning English to be placed in an English immersion program that is intended to last one year or less. With this constitutional measure pending, the Board of Education of the Eagle County School District approves the following resolution expressing its concerns and desires:

Whereas, this Board of Education shares the belief advocated by proponents of Amendment 31 that every student needs to be fluent in English to be successful in the United States, but also believes that problems associated with this proposed constitutional amendment far outweigh any benefits; and,

Whereas, passage of this Amendment will eliminate the constitutionally-established right of local control in determining the most appropriate instructional practices to teach English to non-English speakers; and,

Whereas, this Amendment gives sweeping legal standing to parents to sue teachers, administrators and members of the Board of Education personally for 10 years, and without indemnification by any party; and,

Whereas, this Board of Education, through its monitoring of all academic programs is committed to substantially improving fluency and an academic proficiency in English for all students, will evaluate the merits of all educational services directed to English Language Learners in our district and elsewhere, including English immersion; and,

Whereas, we believe that all children regardless of wealth or ethnicity can learn and achieve academically at equally high levels and that all district personnel share responsibility in attaining this goal.

Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at vwhitney@vaildaily.com.


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