Why Amendment 31 failed
After two months in kindergarten at Edwards Elementary School, 5-year-old Malia Barca can say the alphabet in Spanish.
That’s one of the reasons her father, Mike Barca, 42, said he voted against Amendment 31 last week.
“I don’t want to lose the bilingual programs for our kids, too,” Barca said after leaving the polls. “Also, it’s foolish to think that the only thing that is important for the kids is to learn English. They won’t learn the subjects if they can’t speak the language well.”
Voters in Colorado rejected Amendment 31, keeping bilingual programs in public schools across the state. The measure, a proposed change to the Colorado Constitution that would have dismantled bilingual education, was rejected by 56 percent of those casting ballots.
In Eagle County, where 38 percent of the students in public schools are Hispanic, more than 61 percent of voters opposed the proposed amendment.
Meanwhile Massachusetts – the first state in the nation to enact bilingual education 31 years ago – became the third state where voters have decided to go back the other way, exchanging bilingual programs for all-English classes. In a state in where 45,000 students in use bilingual programs, Question 2 passed with 70 percent of the vote.
Colorado’s Amendment 31, by comparison, would have affected about 70,000 students.
Massachusetts is the latest state successfully targeted by Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz, who previously financed successful measures in two other states: California in 1998; and Arizona in 2000.
Proponents of Colorado’s Amendment 31 insist, however, that sheltering English-immersion programs is the best way to teach English.
“The voters made the right choice,” says Jane Urschel, associate executive director with the Colorado Association of School Boards. “The amendment was poorly conceived as policy: the language was confusing; it intruded in local control; it was too punitive and it was costly.”
Amendment 31 – like Question 2 – called for placing non-English speakers in English-immersion classes for a year, with some exceptions. The initiative was rejected by school boards across Colorado, as well as Eagle County’s Board of County Commissioners and school board, whose members agreed the initiative would have provided “sweeping legal standing to parents to sue teachers and school administrators.”
“I think Amendment 31 failed because of the way it was written,” says Barbara Schierkolk, chairwoman of the Eagle County School Board.
Edwards Elementary Principal Cindy Secrist agrees.
“I think we did a really good job of educating voters to the pitfalls of Amendment 31,” she says. “I also believe that the fact that the governor came out against it had a lot to do with people rejecting it.”
In Massachusetts, meanwhile, Republican Mitt Romney, who won the election for governor, supported Question 2.
John Britz, political consultant for Amendment 31 opponents English Plus, said they purposely stayed away from arguing the merits of bilingual education, instead focusing on the ballot’s wording.
“”We had whittled it down to it being too punitive, too costly and too disruptive,” he says.
The controversial wording included a prevision that would have allowed a parent of a student learning English to apply for a waiver from the immersion program. Those same parents would have been able to sue the school administrator who granted the waver, including school board members, if the parents later conclude it a mistake and ultimately injured the education of their child. Parents would have 10 years to take the educator to court.
The Massachusetts initiative, meanwhile, also allows teachers to be sued for “willfully and repeatedly” violating Question 2.
In California, where a similar measure was adopted in 1998, parents can’t retain the right to sue for 10 years
Another issue that perhaps doomed Amendment 31 was that is was a proposed change to the Colorado Constitution. Question 2 wasn’t a constitutional amendment.
If Amendment 31 had passed in Colorado, the school would have had to rethink the entire program, Secrist says. At Edwards Elementary, for example, 55 percent of the students are currently enrolled in bilingual programs in which they study subjects such as math or science in their native tongue while easing into English.
Although it had its pitfalls, Brendza says Amendment 31 had some merits.
“It’s clearly evident that the students who are primarily Spanish-speakers aren’t performing,” he says. “We need to be more aggressive to teach English to non-English speaking students.”
Either way, Brendza says, the school district already was in the process of taking a close look at its bilingual programs.
“We know for fact that one thing we need to look at is how we’re educating the parents to be part of this,” he says.
Both Brendza and Secrist say they believe the immersion initiative will come back in a couple of years.
“I think there are people who think that English is the only way,” Urschel says. “But it takes time to learn. “
“It’s pretty evident that there is a strong wish in this country to improve the language teaching to these children,” Brendza adds.
Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.