The Voters Speak in 2002: Fully Fund and Strengthen Public Education

Bilingual Education and Other Education-Related Initiatives

Voters in Colorado rejected a measure that would have banned native-language support for non-English speaking students and, instead, required one year of English immersion. Silicon Valley millionaire and national chairman of “English for the Children” Ron Unz, was sponsor and financier of Amendment 31. Two other anti-bilingual initiatives backed by Unz — measures in Arizona (2000)54 and California (1998)55 — were passed by wide margins. The outcome in Colorado marked the first time an Unz-funded initiative was defeated. Amendment 31 opponents argued that the proposal would leave many non-English speakers behind.56

The biggest criticism of the amendment was voiced by many school districts, elected officials and candidates of all parties, saying the measure took control of decisions about how best to educate children away from local districts and the families they serve.57 In addition to lack of local control, opponents said a law can not mandate the rate at which students learn — referring to the amendment’s one year only immersion requirement — and that the measure would require an additional testing requirement for English learners.58

Hispanic voters helped vote down Amendment 31. In fact, in Denver’s heavily Hispanic populated neighborhoods, voters turned down the measure by a 2-to-1 margin.59

Massachusetts voters, however, overwhelmingly (68 percent to 32 percent) passed Question 2, ending their state’s 31-year commitment to bilingual education and replace it with an English-only strategy commonly referred to as immersion. As in Colorado, however, a clear majority of Hispanics voted against Question 2. A University of Massachusetts exit poll found that 92 percent of Hispanics polled had opposed the measure.60 Another initiative financed by California millionaire Ron Unz, the immersion plan places non-English speaking students in all-English classes for a year, with some exceptions.61 After the year, students will be expected to participate in school only in English.62

Under the conditions specifically outlined in Question 2, teachers can make “minimal” use of a student’s native language and some students can apply for waivers under certain conditions. However, teachers “willfully and repeatedly” violating the terms in the initiative could be sued for their non-compliance.63 Viewed by critics as a power-grabbing measure that takes away decisions once reserved to individual schools and local districts, Question 2’s implementation ushers in a sink-or-swim method of language instruction in Massachusetts’ schools.64

The Nebraska Constitution will continue to include the requirement that English be the official language in private schools. Adopted in 1919 in reaction to anti-German sentiment during World War I, the language was declared unconstitutional in 1923 although it remains in the document. Backers of Amendment 1 sought to remove this language. The amendment’s supporters believed voters were confused about the measure, thinking bilingual education was the issue, not simply the legislative method for eliminating obsolete language from their Constitution.65

Finally, voters approved Hawaii’s Question 2 to allow not-for-profit private and religious schools, colleges and universities to secure special purpose revenue bonds to pay for renovations. The Legislature is authorized to provide these schools with tax-free bonds that allow private schools to obtain low-interest loans. Private investors who lend money for the project would bear the risk of nonpayment, in return for interest payments that would be exempt from federal and state income taxes. This is a common practice in states that support private post-secondary institutions, especially in the Northeast. Extending this support to private K-12 schools raised some concern. The Hawaii State Teachers Association opposed Question 2, arguing that it would take attention away from a $600 million deferred maintenance problem in the public schools, benefit a small group of select students, and blur the lines between what is public and what is private.66

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