Got English?

Got English? by Ron Unz vs. Gully Stanford
Denver Rocky Mountain NewsSaturday, September 14, 2002

Amendment 31 would transform how students who don’t speak English are educated in Colorado, requiring that they take special classes taught in English. Some of them currently are enrolled in programs in which they are instructed for a substantial part of the day in Spanish. Today’s Roundtable debate features Ron Unz, a California entrepreneur who spearheaded the campaign to put the amendment on the ballot and Gully Stanford, a member of the Colorado State Board of Education who is leading English Plus, the group fighting the initiative. The discussion was moderated by Vincent Carroll, editor of the editorial pages.

News: Ron, tell us what this amendment does and why you think it’s necessary for Colorado.

Unz: Sure. Bilingual education in which some or most of a child’s instruction is in the child’s family’s native language was begun with the best of intentions 35 years ago, but it’s had a huge number of problems since then all around the country. I’ve always been skeptical of it because of my family’s immigrant background, and a few years ago I started a successful effort in California to get rid of the bilingual programs there and replace them with intensive English immersion. Many of the criticisms of my efforts at that time in California were identical to the ones that we’re hearing right now in Colorado.

Critics said, for example, that even though bilingual programs clearly have problems, that getting rid of them would be an incredible disaster.

Instead, in less than four years after the passage of the initiative in California the test scores of over a million dents have nearly doubled. They’ve been rising rapidly. Many of the supporters of bilingual education have admitted that they were wrong and that the program really doesn’t work, and that getting rid of it is beneficial to children’s education.

Since then I have been working with groups of people in other parts of the country – in Arizona, here in Colorado, in Massachusetts – to support the passage of similar initiatives. Getting rid of the bilingual programs here in Colorado will hopefully have as strong a benefit for immigrant students as has already occurred in California.

Stanford: I would agree that native language instruction for multiple years, like 12 years, is a disaster. That’s not what English Plus favors. We’re about English language acquisition – but more important, we’re about choice. The segregated immersion that Ron favors works for some students, but so do three-year transition programs, which is for instance what George Bush supports through his No Child Left Behind initiative. A three-year transition is also what federal Judge Richard Matsch [who supervises Denver’s bilingual program through court order] and even Rita Montero [head of the pro-Amendment 31 campaign and former Denver school board member] supported at one time: a three-year transition program.

Dual-language programs also work, such as we have at the Ana Maria Sandoval Dual Language Montessori school or the Washington Elementary bilingual in Boulder or the Harris Bilingual in Fort Collins.

Do we have problems with bilingual education? You bet we have problems.

We have a criminally underfunded English Language Proficiency Act which was set up in 1983 to fund 8,000 students in Colorado and now we have 70,000 qualifying students. But the fact is our language programs work because of choice and a parent gets to choose what program is right for his or her kid. This lack of choice is the crack in the Titanic for Mr. Unz’s proposal. Choice is our No. 1 issue here. I don’t know why it is that Mr. Unz feels that Colorado’s parents shouldn’t have choice.

And this amendment will cut both ways. Eighty-six percent of Colorado’s 178 school districts don’t actually have even an English as a Second Language program; they use total regular classroom immersion. Mr. Unz would like to segregate those students.

News: Let’s define sheltered English immersion programs, which are mandated by Amendment 31 for students who don’t speak English. It’s my understanding that they involve instruction taught almost exclusively in English but for only those students who haven’t mastered the language, right?

Unz: Exactly. It may be that many school districts in Colorado take a child who doesn’t know a word of English and sticks that child in a regular class with only English-speaking students and no extra assistance, but that is unconstitutional under the Lau v. Nichols U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1974. The court required that children who don’t know English be given some type of extra help. Putting them in a mainstream class without extra help is called submersion; what we’re advocating is sheltered English immersion, which means you take all the children who don’t know English very well, you put them in a separate class with teachers who are specially trained and equipped to teach them English. The teacher can go more slowly since all the students in the classroom are learning English together.

After a few months or a year, when the students have learned enough English to do regular schoolwork in English, they are moved into regular classes. This is the program established in California that seems to have really quite good results.

News: Bilingual education in Denver in the rly 1990s was a troubled program that kept kids in it for a long time. That’s why the Denver district fought to reform the program, against the wishes of federal officials, and why its goal today is to get kids ready for regular classes within three years. Is it your position, Ron, that the three-year program is still no good? Does the research show it to be inferior to the immersion programs you favor?

Unz: To be honest, almost all the research produced in the subject comes from professors of bilingual education and almost all of it claims that all of these bilingual programs are very successful. One interesting thing about this research is that it actually claims that bilingual programs have to last five to seven years. None of the research says three years is enough. That’s actually the reason that many of these bilingual advocates so strongly fought Rita Montero and the other people on the Denver school board who tried to limit the program to three years. They rightfully said the research says five to seven years or even longer is needed for children to learn English.

I would argue that all of the research is nonsense. The evidence from California is that when you get rid of these bilingual programs and you shift to intensive English immersion, test scores rise dramatically – so rapidly in fact that many of the previous advocates of bilingual education now admit that they were wrong for 30 years.

News: Gully, is Ron correctly conveying what the research and the experience in California prove?

Stanford: Actually, what research shows is when you have a competent qualified teacher in every classroom and an engaged parent, children perform better. As for the evidence from California, you have to understand there were some other pretty dramatic changes in California school mandates: smaller class sizes, better teacher preparation and additional funding. I’m delighted that the sleeping giant of educracy in California has been woken up, but Mr. Unz is in Colorado now and I’m afraid he has not done his due diligence here.

I’m not here to defend bilingual education; I’m here to defend choice.

We’re no longer making a case for five or more years in English language acquisition. I was actually a convert to Rita Montero when she was claiming that Denver’s three-year plan was possibly one of the best programs across the country. Move forward with a three-year English language program. I’m for that. That’s in the federal statute. It’s in the state statute. There is accountability. We have to treat kids not as stereotypes but as individuals and so parental choice is absolutely crucial.

I think we should ask Ron what happens in the second year of his sheltered immersion if a child isn’t ready and is sent with no additional support to the regular classroom.

News: Before you answer that, Ron, what about Gully’s first point: If the research is all nonsense, how do you know that a well-designed program that intends to get people out within three years isn’t working at least as well as sheltered immersion might?

Unz: I actually first became familiar with some of these controversies in Colorado when I saw a national TV program discussing the debate in the Denver schools and that’s when I got in touch with Rita Montero. At the time I tried to persuade her that the best approach to solving this problem was what I was doing in California. In other words, to get rid of these bilingual programs. Our view is that bilingual education is incredibly difficult to reform and really can only be dismantled rather than reformed. At the time, Rita was still committed to her efforts to try to reform the bilingual programs in Denver. Since those efforts nominally succeeded she and the other people involved have monitored the results, have kept an eye on what’s happening and are now convinced that really the reforms are entirely nominal rather than real. In other words, very few things have actually changed.

Stanford: I don’t believe that there is a one-size- fits-all. We’re a local-control state. We’re a state where we allow our local school districts to pick the curriculum and the instructional. However, we do have standards and we do have sanctions. We have accreditation thanks to passage of Senate Bill 190. I know Ron has other fish to fry around the country and so he’s not familiar with Senate Bill 190, or with House Bill 1349. The governor has signed into law that if this transition to English is not made in three years, individual schools will lose their accreditation and federal funding will be removed under President Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative.

Under No Child Left Behind, there is a three-year transition. If you don’t make adequate yearly progress the feds will be knocking on the door here to find out why we’re not making adequate yearly progress.

News: What about the question Gully posed a moment ago: What happens if a child isn’t ready for regular classes after a year sheltered immersion?

Unz: Section 3 of our initiative clearly states that limited-English should be transferred from a sheltered English immersion program into regular mainstream classes only after they “have acquired reasonable fluency in English and are able to perform ordinary school work in English.” Most immigrant students, especially very young ones, should require only a few months or a year to acquire such “reasonable fluency in English;” hence the sheltered English immersion program is “normally not intended to exceed one year.” But some students, especially older ones, may require additional time, and this is certainly permitted under the text of the initiative.

Stanford: I disagree. A close reading of the proposal proves that Ron’s clear intent is to place students, ready or not, in mainstream classrooms after one nine-month school year, with the inevitable consequent impact on all students. The text refers to “a temporary transition period not normally intended to exceed one year,” but provides no process to extend that year for students in need of further help. It’s easy for Ron to say now, “Oh, we didn’t mean to limit all students to one year,” but that’s what a strict reading of the proposed constitutional amendment implies.

News: How does Amendment 31 affect the federal court order that oversees bilingual education in Denver?

Unz: Since it’s a federal court order, it supersedes state law. If this initiative were to pass we would simply seek legal grounds to have the court order modified to comply with the new state law. That’s very likely to occur, but the day the initiative passes it would not be in effect in Denver because the court order would not have been modified yet.

News: How many students are in bilingual education statewide, and how many of those are in Denver?

Stanford: There are 70,000 students statewide in English-language programs, and 16,400 in Denver. Only a minority of those students are being taught in Spanish: 32 percent statewide and 42 percent in Denver.

Unz: The point is, based on what attorneys have told me, the court order would very quickly be modified so that in effect the initiative would apply to Denver not the day it passed but probably within a matter of a few weeks or a couple of months.

Stanford: I’m not altogether certain that judge who has been sitting in judgment of the Denver Public Schools for over a dozen years would necessarily go along with that.

News: So it is possible all districts except Denver would have to comply with it.

Unz: It’s possible, but unlikely.

Stanford: Another of our concerns is that this is a constitutional amendment, not a statute, so that not one comma of this can be changed without another statewide vote of the people. This is particularly relevant when it so devastates parental choice.

News: Let’s discuss this issue of parental choice. Ron, your amendment does allow waivers for children to enroll in bilingual programs under special circumstances, but the penalties for granting waivers improperly are severe. They’re so severe, in fact, that some people argue that waivers simply wouldn’t be granted at all. What’s your view?

Unz: I wouldn’t say not granted at all. In fact, there are three different categories of waivers. And it’s important to distinguish those categories. Waivers can very easily be granted to children who already know English; in effect they’re exempt from the initiative. So, for example, children who already know English and whose parents want to place them in a program where they’ll be taught entirely in Spanish or French or German or Chinese are virtually exempt from the initiative.

News: Would that salvage the dual-immersion schools that Gully referred to earlier?

Unz: It would salvage the part of it that involves students who already speak English.

Stanford: We are absolutely certain, given our legal advice, that you can kiss goodbye to dual immersion programs such as Harris Bilingual and Ana Maria Sandoval.

Unz: Again, the English-speaking children in those programs essentially are exempt from the initiative. They make up about half or near roughly half of the students in those schools.

The second category of exemptions are students who are 10 years and older. Now, one misperception in the whole bilingual education debate is that it is very common to have students who are 12 years old or 14 years old who just arrived from Mexico and don’t speak a word of English – the belief being they’re obviously at sea if you put them in a regular class where everything is in English. The interesting thing about that perception is that it’s almost entirely false.

Throughout the United States and also here in Colorado over half of all the so-called limited English students were actually born in the United States. Most of the remainder actually arrived here when they were very young. So the vast majority of the millions of limited English students in the United States start school in the United States when they’re 5 or 6 years old when it’s very easy and quick for them to learn another language. The remainder of the students who are 10 years and older can relatively easily be granted a waiver from the initiative.

News: And the third category for waivers is?

Unz: It’s a catch-all category. Younger students who have such special needs that there’s direct hard evidence that that particular child will benefit from a particular native-language program, such as a dual-language program. Then that particular child can be granted a waiver to be placed in that particular program. These would be very limited exceptions.

News: Yet what is the incentive for a principal and a superintendent, both of whom have to sign off on every waiver, to grant one when they can be held personally liable for violating the terms of the amendment?

In fact, they can be held personally liable for up to 10 years after they make a decision. Ten years is a long time. A principal could grant a waiver for somebody in third grade and then find himself sued a decade later if the parents decided they didn’t like the way their kid’s education turned out.

Wouldn’t that result in tremendous reluctance among school officials to grant waivers?

Unz: You’re entirely right and I very much agree with those who say that Category Three waivers for the younger students will be very difficult to obtain, and will be granted only under very limited circumstances. I think that’s the way that it should be. But even so, the legal liability provisions of the initiative only apply for teachers or administrators who are found by a court to have “willfully and repeatedly” violated the law. “Willfully” is a very high legal standard and I would argue if you’re talking about a public school official who willfully and repeatedly violates a law that was passed and voted by the people of Colorado and, as a result, severely damages the education of a public school child, I think that person should be held accountable.

News: But why the 10-year limit statute of limitations? Wouldn’t you be able to tell if school officials were willfully violating the law long before a decade had passed?

Unz: The problem is that many of these bilingual advocates repeatedly claim that the programs take many years to be successful. So, if you say it’s a two-year statute of limitations and the child after three years still hasn’t learned any English, they can easily tell the parents, “Well, we have all this research saying it takes seven years. Don’t worry if your child doesn’t read or write in English after three years.”

Stanford: What Ron is talking about is not legal in Colorado. I don’t know why he’s talking about five years or seven years. It’s not legal in Colorado, according to the requirement of Senate Bill 190/House Bill 1349 signed by the governor. It’s three years to learn English or you’ll start losing your federal funding.

But let’s get back to the waivers for a second. Regarding waiver Categories One and Two, we feel that there are real constitutional issues in identifying classes of students and giving some classes privileged treatment. That means that others then get discriminatory treatment. And I don’t believe that superintendents or school boards will sign off on these waivers because of the sanctions and the penalties.

Twenty-six percent of the students in the Denver Public Schools are exercising choice. I’m exercising choice for my child, and if I’m told that some choices are available to other 10-year- olds but not to my 10-year-old, I think that’s pretty slippery ground. I know why Mr. Unz has made the distinction but I’m not sure that it holds water, particularly when you’ve got sanctions against those who grant the waivers.

Let’s go to the sanctions because Mr. Unz and I have, I think, a very real disagreement in the interpretation of this. If you read Section 5, there is a free-standing sentence in here that says that “parents who apply for and are granted exemption waivers under subparagraph three of this section still retain for 10 years thereafter the full legal right to sue the individuals who granted such waivers if they subsequently conclude during that period that the waivers were granted in error.” That’s not “repeated and willful.” That is a different class of lawsuit. That’s the parents saying, 10 years later, that their 22-year-old didn’t get a job at the Rocky Mountain News and deciding to sue.

News: What about that, Ron? Have you injected a subjective, victim-defined standard for suing school officials here?

Unz: The part of the initiative that really has the strongest teeth is the personal legal liability on the part of the administrators or teachers. That personal legal liability is limited explicitly to administrators and teachers who are found by a court of law to have willfully, repeatedly violated the law. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: After a similar initiative passed in California and Arizona, there were a certain number of teachers and administrators who were very strong bilingual advocates who publicly told the newspapers they would refuse to follow the law because they believed in bilingual education. They didn’t care what the voters did; they would ignore the law. It seems to me that would be prima facie evidence of the willful violation of the law.

News: So this amendment makes waivers more difficult to obtain than they are in either California or Arizona?

Unz: Exactly. What we’ve been doing is steadily tightening up what the other side claims are loopholes. In California, the percentage of students in bilingual education has fallen by about 70 or 80 percent. Which is a bit less than what we had hoped for.

News: What do you think that figure will be here?

Unz: If in Colorado you saw a reduction in the number of students in bilingual education by 90 percent, 95 percent, 98 percent, I think that’s sort of what the voters would be aiming at when they voted.

Stanford: I don’t think Colorado should be used as a guinea pig for an increasing tightening of the noose, if you will pardon my metaphor.

Absolutely there needs to be accountability. We’re a local-control state. We have accountability. We have accreditation. We have the best school accountability report in the country, according to Education Week. We can identify which teachers and which classrooms and which students are making the transition to English. We don’t even have any total Spanish-language classrooms. Ron’s talking about the 12-year submersion? We don’t have that. We’ve got a law in this state and as a member of the State Board of Education I’m here to insist that law is being administered.

News: Is the implementation of this amendment going to raise the cost of education?

Stanford: Amendment 31 is an unfunded mandate, plain as a pikestaff. First there’s a whole new battery of written tests – not the CSAPs nor the Iowas – in all subjects taught in English. Colorado has 12 model content subjects. Do the math – 70,000 students times 12 tests times a conservative $15 per test – that’s $12.6 million every year. In addition, the Arizona Department of Education reports annual incremental costs of implementation at a miniumum of $192 per student – another $13.4 million. That’s $26 million a year for the taxpayers to pay for a program for which we currently provide $3.1 million in the School Finance Act.

Unz: It’s completely ridiculous for our opponents to claim that Amendment 31 will require massive new educational spending by the State of Colorado, and this reflects their political desperation more than anything else.

Amendment 31 merely requires that all limited- English students in Colorado be given a nationally- normed test once each year to monitor their academic progress. All Colorado students are already given a full battery of different tests and it’s very difficult to see how requiring a small fraction of those students to be given one additional test along with the full battery of tests they already take will bust the bank.

News: Gully, you’ve referred several times to the importance of freedom of choice that we have in Colorado. In what sense do students today have choice regarding bilingual education? How is it exercised?

Stanford: Well let’s talk about what’s on paper and what’s in practice.

If you’re in a district that doesn’t have bilingual or ESL or dual-language programs basically you would have to take on your local school board and make a case like some of us do for music education – make a case that it needs to be provided. Or you can take your child to another district, since in Colorado we have interdistrict choice. But let’s say you’re in a big school district like Boulder or Denver and you have a choice. You have ESL programs, where you are learning the English language with some very minor assistance in your native language. You have the segregated immersion which Ron is proposing, though he still hasn’t answered the question of what happens in the second year if you haven’t made the transition to English language proficiency. You have transitional bilingual programs which can last up to three years, and then you have dual language. Any Denver parent has the right to pick any one of those programs. If that right is not being exercised, then you have recourse to your local school board.

News: Do school officials recommend to parents where their kids should be placed? Do they channel kids into a particular area?

Stanford: It’s based on a test when you enter the system. If that test shows that you’re one of the 70,000 students in Colorado that requires English language acquisition services, then you qualify under the English Language Proficiency Act.

Then, for example, as a parent of a child in Denver Public Schools, you are offered the choice of the programs that you can go to. Now, there are some limits, obviously. Maria Sandoval is not big enough to handle all who want to go there, but Maria Sandoval was created partly in response to the Spanish-speaking parents who wanted their kids put into a dual-language program. There are sanctions if the process isn’t followed. I’ve been on the State Board of Education for six years; I’ve not received a single call from the Latino community complaining that they were denied choice.

Unz: That’s exactly what people said in California. The pattern around the country for 30 years now, is that almost everywhere in the United States bilingual education is voluntary in theory but mandatory in practice.

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