School board opposes Amendment 31 |

School board opposes Amendment 31

SUMMIT COUNTY – Summit School Board members unanimously approved a resolution Wednesday “emphatically” opposing Amendment 31, a Nov. 5 ballot question proposing to restrict bilingual education in public schools.

Following a presentation from an Eagle County Schools team, as well as a tear-filled speech by two Summit High School English as a Second Language students, board members wondered how there was any support at all for the amendment.

“I’m shocked,” said board vice president Dr. Marshall Denkinger. “I think it’s educationally inappropriate.”

Amendment 31 would add to Colorado’s constitution the requirement that non-English speaking children be immersed for one year or less in an English class.

If passed, the amendment would order “children to be taught by using the English language in their classrooms and requiring children who are learning English to be placed in an English immersion program that is intended to last one year or less and, if unsuccessful, will result in placement of such children in ordinary classrooms,” according to the ballot title.

The petition to get the amendment on the ballot was organized by the Colorado chapter of English for the Children. The group was formed by California businessman Ron Unz, who successfully led campaigns for similar measures in California and Arizona.

“The idea is the students will be taught English as soon as they start by being rapidly immersed in it,” Unz told the Summit Daily in May. “Once they learned enough – which would probably just take a few months or a year – then they’re mainstreamed into regular classes.”

The amendment stipulates that children be taught English by teachers speaking English – without assistance in their own language. The English-learners would be separated from native speakers and placed in their own classroom.

Teachers can use bilingual education techniques, defined in the amendment as speaking to the student in the student’s native language, only if a parent or guardian obtains a “waiver.” Parents or guardians must initiate the waiver process in person; schools can deny the application without explaining the reason. Older students and students with special needs are listed explicitly as possible qualifiers for a waiver.

The amendment also provides that parents can sue school district employees and school board members to enforce the law, as well as for actual damages – as opposed to punitive damages – if they can prove a waiver “injured the education of their child.”

Parents can sue for up to 10 years after a waiver is granted. If a court finds school employees or board members guilty, the amendment requires the person be removed from office and barred from holding any position of authority in state government or public schools for five years.

The Summit County Education Association – the teachers union – approached the school district administration about hosting a forum on the amendment. The association opposes the amendment.

“It really takes away local control,” said Heather Boylan, a member of the association’s leadership team and a teacher and coordinator of Summit High School’s English as a Second Language program. “And Ron Unz is a politician, not an educational researcher. For him to say he knows the best way to teach kids English doesn’t make sense, because no one knows.”

Rita Montero, chair of the Colorado faction of English for the Children, accepted the district’s invitation to participate in the forum but canceled on Friday.

“A friend was going to take me up but had a job responsibility come up,” Montero said Tuesday.

Montero said advertisements opposing Amendment 31 are untrue. Contrary to the letter of the amendment, she said teachers will not lose their jobs over the proposed law.

Even though families could sue after a child is finished with school, parents would “sue to have the amendment enforced, not to get teachers fired and seek financial damages,” she said. A judge would likely settle the question once a lawsuit was filed.

“The test scores I’ve been shown say, across the board, these students are not doing well,” Montero said. “If Summit schools can prove their program is a viable alternative and a working program, they can waive their kids into it.”

Edwards Elementary School teacher Emily Hill-Larson, part of the school’s dual language program that teaches kindergarten students Spanish and English, and parent Bambi Forbes agreed to attend the Summit forum and spoke out against Amendment 31.

Hill-Larson said federal and state laws already require schools to teach students English, but she stressed many ways exist to do that. She said the amendment would amount to an unfunded mandate that would create more expenses and paperwork for schools.

“Of course every child should learn English,” Hill-Larson said. “But this is a lack of funding and a lack of choice. If this passes, we no longer have control.”

Summit High School sophomores Veronica Nogueda and Marielisa Alarcon told the school board they thought the amendment was a bad idea.

The English as a Second Language students said many of their peers would drop out of school – leading to increases in gang activity and employment crises – because they would lose the assistance they need to learn the new language.

“If they do this, it would affect their future and life,” a tearful Nogueda said. “Imagine if you or your child went to another country and had to learn the language, but no one would help you. Would you think you were just wasting your time?”

Denkinger and the other school board members agreed with the teacher, parent and students who spoke. Denkinger said changes to the state’s constitution should represent solutions to problems that put Colorado “on the borders of anarchy,” not to set educational policy.

“I think this profiles students, ethnically and socio-economically,” he said.

School administrators and teachers have worked hard to bring diverse students together and to appreciate other cultures, said board member Kristy Price. “This would only further divide and segregate students.”

The school board joined 14 school districts, 43 state political candidates, including Gov. Bill Owens and Summit County’s four candidates for the House and Senate, numerous education organizations and a growing list of hundreds of citizens in opposing the measure.

Registered supporters of Amendment 31 are candidates Marti Allbright (U.S. Congress), Erik Brauer (U.S. Congress), Douglas “Dayhorse” Campbell (U.S. Senate), Mel Hilgenberg (board of education District 1), R. Kent Leonard (U.S. Congress), Marilyn Musgrave (U.S. Congress), Gaar I. Potter (State Treasurer) and Glenn Rhoades (District 7 board of education). No school board has endorsed the amendment publicly.

Reid Williams can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 237 or

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