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Colorado Upholds the Right to Bilingual Education

Colorado Upholds the Right to Bilingual Education

Historically, Colorado is a conservative state and has a weak track record concerning bilingual education and language rights. Denver's public schools, with the largest bilingual student population, have been under a court ordered decree since 1984 — demanding compliance with federal policy on bilingual education. They remain out of compliance to this day. In 1987, voters passed an "English Is the Official Language of the State of Colorado" amendment to the constitution, mandating all state business be done in "English only." In 1992, a complaint filed by Padres Unidos with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) resulted in the Denver Public Schools being found guilty of "Discrimination Based on Race in Bilingual Education." Because of the OCR findings and the creation of dual-language schools across the state, Colorado received national attention and became a target for local and national anti-bilingual proponents. It was in this context that Ron Unz chose to target Colorado for his anti-bilingual "English for the Children" campaign.

TAILORING THE MESSAGE

Critical to the success of the campaign was everyone's ability to unite around "No on 31" while also recognizing the need to approach various constituencies differently. In other words, depending on their conditions and concerns, different groups were approached with different reasons for voting against Amendment 31.

To defeat the amendment, it was essential to win over white middle-class voters. Our message was that the measure was too punitive because teachers could be personally sued for speaking Spanish in the classroom; too costly, because it would involve starting new programs; and too restrictive because it would have eliminated dual-language programs and parent choice. These points appeared in yard signs, on TV and radio — thanks to a $3 million donation by a generous parent whose daughter attends a dual-language public school in Northern Colorado. There is no question that the resources brought forth by this mother had a tremendous impact on the movement to win the campaign.

To win over the Latino and African-American communities, we helped them understand that the right to bilingual education is a part of the struggle for democracy and justice.

When the question of bilingual education was connected to becoming literate, being able to vote, and equal access to education, members of the African-American community could easily relate to the issue and see it as their own. One person pointed out how in the past, slaves caught learning how to read could be killed or have their tongues cut out.

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