- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2000

DENVER As a teacher with Denver's public schools, Joseph C'de Baca was a strong supporter of bilingual education until he concluded that his students weren't learning English.
"I'd have these kids from Mexico that I knew from Hamilton Middle School when they were in sixth grade, and they were nice kids, good kids," recalled Mr. C'de Baca, who taught wood shop and social studies.
"Then I'd see them a few years later at West High School, where I also taught, and they're still in the bilingual program. And they're in 12th grade," he said. "And I'd say, 'What the hell is going on here?' Because now they're bi-illiterate."
Convinced that traditional bilingual education was failing students, Mr. C'de Baca is a leading mover behind a proposed ballot initiative that would eliminate such programs in Colorado public schools. Instead, limited-English students would be placed in one-year English-immersion classes, where their native language would be spoken only sparingly.
The students would be moved into mainstream classrooms, unless their language skills were still too rudimentary, in which case they would remain in the English-immersion program for another year.
The Colorado proposal is modeled after California's Proposition 227, the landmark 1998 initiative that passed despite heated opposition from teachers unions and Hispanic activists. The movement also has spread to Arizona, where organizers last week introduced a statewide campaign to place a similar measure on the Nov. 7 ballot.
The Colorado and Arizona campaigns still must gather enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, but both are benefiting from powerful sponsors. The Colorado measure is backed by Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican, and Linda Chavez, president of One Nation Indivisible, who has promised $500,000 for the effort.
"It's the single most important factor in whether a Hispanic student is going to make it in this society or not whether that person can speak, write and communicate fluently in English," said Mrs. Chavez, an appointee of former President Reagan whose nationally syndicated column runs in the Denver Post.
Colorado was a natural choice to follow California, she said, because of its large number of Spanish speakers and the state's initiative process.
"There aren't very many states where you have the problem of lots of bilingual kids and the solution of the ballot initiative," she said.
Backing the Arizona effort is Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz, the mover and shaker behind Proposition 227, and Rep. Matt Salmon, Arizona Republican. Organizers of English for the Children of Arizona announced last week that they have gathered enough signatures to win a slot on the ballot.
The opposition is mobilizing quickly in both states. Coloradans for Common Sense, whose numbers include bilingual educators and Hispanic leaders, has tried unsuccessfully to kill the measure with administrative challenges.
Critics argue that the one-year immersion program leaves students ill-prepared for mainstream classes.
"I just don't think it's enough time," said Denver school board member Lucia Guzman. "Research shows kids are able to grasp concepts more fully in their native language. It's important that they are taught Spanish as they are taught English."
Denver is no stranger to the bilingual-education debate. In 1993, the Justice Department's Office of Civil Rights, responding to complaints from parents, accused the Denver public schools of negligence in managing their bilingual-education program.
That system, which kept students for five to seven years, was replaced last year by the English Language Acquisition Program, a court-ordered plan that required schools to mainstream students in three years. Denver educators argue that the new program should be given a chance to succeed.
Taking a page from the conservative playbook, they also contend that the ballot initiative would hurt school districts by removing control from the local decision-makers who are most familiar with bilingual education.
"I think it should be left up to local school boards how to educate students," said Denver school board President Elaine Berman. "Denver Public Schools is deeply committed to teaching children English as quickly as possible. To meet the individual needs of students, we need flexibility."
Pam Martinez, director of Padres Unidos, accused Mr. Tancredo and Mrs. Chavez of using Colorado to further their national political goals.
"They have a definite political agenda," said Mrs. Martinez, whose group filed the original civil rights complaint but opposes the English-immersion proposal. "This is the same money as you see in the English-only movement."
But Mr. C'de Baca says the public is tired of excuses for why students aren't learning English.
"The experiment is over, he said. "They've had 30 years, and it's been a massive failure."
Whether Denver would be subject to the initiative is uncertain. Some educators argue the court order to implement the ELAP could trump the ballot measure, which would take the form of a constitutional amendment if approved by voters in November.

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