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Would bilingual ban cost more?

Veronica Whitney

The initiative, which would amend the Colorado Constitution, requires non-English-speakers attend regular classrooms after a year of intensive English instruction.

“We don’t know if it will cost more to do English immersion,” says Karen Strackbein, the Eagle County School District’s director of finance. “It seems prudent to wait because there are so many variables involved.”

But Emily Larson, grant and program coordinator for Edwards Elementary School, says the changes will be expensive.

“We think it will cost more to implement the program because it’s a new one,” Larson says. “There’s always a start-up cost for training and new materials. We’ve spent years collecting materials that support our current programs.”

Though Amendment 31 mandates changes in language instruction, according to the legislative report, it won’t change how Colorado funds public schools. School districts would use their current funding to implement the immersion programs. But the cost would depend on the money each school district already devotes to teaching English and how it implements the initiative. The Eagle County School District, for example, spends $1.4 million teaching English. That’s about 3.6 percent of its $39 million budget.

“If the amendment passes,” Strackbein says, “we would have to redesign the program, and without knowing what the ultimate program will look like, we can’t know how much it will cost.”

The Colorado sponsor of Amendment 31, Rita Montero, however, says the initiative will end up saving money.

“All they have to do is re-direct the dollars that they are paying for materials and books,” she says.

Under the Colorado English Language Proficiency Act, school districts receive additional funding from the state Department of Education for students learning English. State funding is limited to two years for each student identified in the program and is divvied up depending on how many such students each district has.

Unknowns in Eagle County

Amendment 31 will clearly strain the finances of local schools, according to the report. If the initiative passes, many schools would have to revamp their curriculums, teaching assignments and testing procedures.

Larson says Amendment 31 could do further damage. She says she’s concerned Edwards Elementary will lose a federal grant that provides the school with $1.1 million for five years worth of English instruction and bilingual programs.

“Our assumption at this point is that we will lose the grant because our grant was based on programs that use bilingual education,” she says.

Another reason the amendment will stress Edwards Elementary’s budget, Larson adds, is 55 percent of its students are currently enrolled in bilingual programs and would be forced into English immersion.

“We would need to divide the school and its resources in two,” she says.

Others concerns expressed by local educators include:

– While schools may save money if immersion is limited to one year, English-learners who are put into mainstream classes after one year may still require additional instruction to ensure federal requirements are met.

– Sheltered immersion programs may be more expensive than existing classes if schools provide more intensive instruction. A 2001 Arizona Department of Education study of six immersion programs across the United States found they cost between $192.10 and $3,067.91 per student. Arizona implemented an immersion program in 2000.

– Bilingual education waivers may require schools to offer more than one type of program for English learners.

– Because English learners will be transferred into mainstream classes generally within one-year, there may be additional costs for training teachers how to teach students not yet fluent in English.

– The initiative requires English-learners in grades two through 12 pass a nationally standardized test. The costs for these tests can range from $25 to $40 per pupil, plus the staff time to administer the test and analyze the results.

Montero, however, argues the new test will not mean new expenses because school districts currently spend a lot of money translating other standardized tests – including the Colorado Standards Assessment Program, or CSAP– into Spanish.

Strackbein, meanwhile, paints a foggier picture.

“I don’t know whether this will be an additional cost for us because we could eliminate a test we’re already doing,” Strackbein says.

Legal wrangling

In Eagle County, Amendment 31 has been rejected by both the Board of Commissioners and the school board, whose members agree the initiative provides “sweeping legal standing to parents to sue teachers and school administrators.”

Amendment 31 allows a parent of a student learning English to apply for a waiver from the immersion program if their child already knows English, is 10-years of age or older, or has mental and physical disabilities.

But those same parents would be able to sue the school administrator who granted the wavier if the parents conclude the waivers were a mistake and ultimately injured the education of their child. Parents would have 10 years to take the educator to court.

“I’m against it,” says Eagle County Commissioner Tom Stone. “And I agree with the governor that it has several fatal flaws in it, including the lawsuit provision, lack of choice and segregation.”

Powerful opponents

Incumbent Republican Gov. Bill Owens and his Democratic opponent, Rollie Heath, both oppose the amendment, as do Sen. Wayne Allard, a Republican, and his Democratic challenger, Tom Strickland.

Jane Urschel, associate executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, says the amendment is a bad law with extreme punitive potential.

“It’s a drastic change and it’s poorly written,” Urschel says.

In the race for the state Attorney General’s Office, however, the candidates disagree. Incumbent Attorney General Ken Salazar says he opposes it, but his challenger, Republican Marti Allbright, supports the measure.

“Amendment 31 is a crucial first step to ensuring that no child is denied the benefits of our economy due to a lack of language skills,” Allbright says.

Other proponents of the measure say a one-year immersion program is sufficient for non-English-speakers to learn the language.

“English immersion is the way to achieve English fluency,” says Kent Leonard, a Colorado Libertarian candidate for Congress. “We need to remember this is the end goal.”

Montero says she wonders why people are scared of the proposed changes.

“All the parents I know say they will keep teaching the kids Spanish at home,” she says. “The language they’ll need is English.

“That’s the opportunity,” she adds. “You go to any foreign country and you can’t demand English instruction because you can’t speak their language.”

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


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