English-Language Learners

Colo. Extends Bilingual Ed., But Mass. Voters Reject It

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 13, 2002 4 min read
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Bilingual education will live on in Colorado, following a rare win at the ballot box for bilingual education supporters. But it faces near-extinction in Massachusetts in the wake of last week’s elections.

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Meanwhile, the man who was the major force behind those measures and similar initiatives previously passed in two other states hinted that he might target New York next. Ron K. Unz declined to specify how he would change bilingual education policy in that state given there is no citizen-initiative process there. He also would like the U.S. Congress to step in and take up his cause.

“It seems to be clear that this should be dealt with at the federal level,” said Mr. Unz, the author of the Colorado and Massachusetts proposals. The California businessman was behind the anti-bilingual-education measures that passed in California in 1998 and in Arizona in 2000.

For now, both sides in the emotional debate over how best to teach students who are learning English are left to mull over last week’s mixed results, and the strategies behind them.

Bilingual education supporters took heart in Colorado’s defeat of Amendment 31, which would have dismantled bilingual education there, saying the loss showed that such initiatives can be stopped. Voters rejected the proposal by 56 percent to 44 percent.

In their fight to overturn the measure, the Colorado opponents benefited greatly from a $3 million contribution in October from Pat Stryker, the parent of a girl attending a bilingual school in Fort Collins, Colo.

Elections 2002

Delia Pompa, the executive director of the National Association of Bilingual Education, based in Washington, played up the win for proponents of bilingual education in Colorado, and she stressed that the donation wasn’t the only factor.

“Money in the end helps to get the message out,” she said. “But you have to have a strong message and organization. You have to bring forward the message that captures the effect of the initiative, that it will harm kids.”

Rita Montero, the chairwoman for English for the Children of Colorado, the organization that supported the initiative, has a different take on the outcome. “They got 3 million dollars, and they used it to lie to the voters,” she charged, adding that her group spent only about $100,000 on ads.

She pointed to television and radio ads that told voters that their property taxes would be raised because of the initiative, and that schools would experience chaos because, the ads claimed, children who couldn’t speak English would be placed into mainstream classes without any English instruction.

John Britz, a political consultant for English Plus, the coalition that defeated the initiative, insisted that his group ran a clean ad campaign. “If anyone fabricated the truth, it was Ron [Unz] and Rita [Montero],” he asserted.

Massachusetts Speaks

Opponents of bilingual education, however, pointed to the results in Massachusetts—where their initiative passed by a ratio of better than 2-to-1— as proof that a wide spectrum of Americans believes bilingual education doesn’t work. The vote was 70 percent to 30 percent in favor of the measure.

Mr. Unz, who contributed most of the money for the campaigns to get the initiatives passed, characterized the Massachusetts win as a political coup. As he sees it, that is because the state is largely Democratic and liberal. Moreover, three decades ago, Massachusetts was the first state to pass a law requiring bilingual education.

But Ms. Pompa of NABE sees in the Massachusetts vote “a misinformed electorate that continues to be misinformed by people who pump out false messages.”

Either way, the Massachusetts measure will affect far fewer schoolchildren than the measures passed earlier in California and Arizona. California has 1.5 million English-language learners, and Arizona has 150,000. In both states, the initiatives reduced the proportion of English-language learners in bilingual education from about one- third to 11 percent.

Massachusetts has 49,000 such students, with about 60 percent of them in bilingual education. With implementation of the ballot initiative, the students now in bilingual education are to be placed in what are called structured English-immersion programs. The programs are not supposed to last for more than a year, though they’ve tended to last much longer in California and Arizona. The initiative overrides a state law that was enacted earlier this fall that would have made bilingual education optional for school districts. Lawmakers passed the measure as a way to defuse the anti-bilingual-education initiative. (“Mass. Voters May Get Choice on Bilingual Ed.,” Aug. 7, 2002.)

Tim Duncan, the chairman of the coalition that fought the Massachusetts measure, said the debate over bilingual education has become less a discussion about education policy and more a political battle to sway voters.

But Lincoln Tamayo, the chairman of English for the Children of Massachusetts, said, “The electorate did what our politicians were unwilling to do, and that is put to rest the misguided and harmful program” of bilingual education.

A version of this article appeared in the November 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as Colo. Extends Bilingual Ed., But Mass. Voters Reject It

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