DENVER, COLO. — On November 5, 2002, a broad-based alliance of grassroots organizations, individuals, churches, unions, elected officials, and coalitions united to defeat Ron Unz’s “English for the Children” initiative.
Nationally, this was the first time Unz’s initiative was defeated as a ballot issue. Ron Unz, chair of English for the Children, is a California multimillionaire software developer and former Republican candidate for governor. Unz launched a national movement to eliminate bilingual education across the country by amending state constitutions, with the ultimate goal being to amend the Constitution of the United States. He also spearheaded the defeat of bilingual education in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts, but his xenophobic anti-immigrant campaign met with fierce resistance in Colorado.
On November 5, more than 56 percent of all Colorado voters opposed the anti-bilingual amendment and voted “No on 31.” Among other things, the amendment to the Constitution would have given all students only nine months to learn English before being placed into all-English classes. For many, this would mean a lifetime of being illiterate. And therein lies the importance of “holding the line” on bilingual education and defeating the likes of Ron Unz: Illiteracy and inequity in education translates into political and economic apartheid for millions of immigrant students.
CONDITIONS IN COLORADO
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.
For the immigrant community, it was important to connect the amendment to the recent raids and deportations taking place in their communities. There were many discussions connecting the amendment to Latinos’ right to maintain their native language and culture.
In the Black community, Padres participated in discussions on the need for African Americans and Latinos coming together to defeat 31. In Colorado, schools are an equal opportunity failure for both African-American and Latino students. Both suffer from high suspensions and expulsions with disproportionate representations in our prison populations.
Despite Unz’s contention that he had the support of the Latino community, Amendment 31 was overwhelmingly defeated in every Latino majority district throughout the state.
English Plus was a Denver-based coalition that emerged to defeat Ron Unz’s English for the Children. With the help of political consultants, the mainstream political message evolved: “Too Costly, Too Punitive, Too Restrictive.” However, some people involved in community organizing in Denver and from around the state raised the need to approach communities of color on different ground — and felt that the main campaign pitch would not appeal to or win over Latino and African-American voters. There were highly charged discussions and debates on this issue. Many English Plus members maintained that putting anything out publicly other than the “Too Costly, Too Punitive, Too Restrictive” would lose the critical white vote. Others claimed that not connecting this amendment to the struggle and issues of Latinos and African Americans would conversely result in losing needed votes from communities of color.
Out of this debate another group emerged: La Gente Coalition. Some organizations and individuals felt it was important to have a forum for framing the work differently in communities of color, and wanted an open and supportive environment in which to create strategies to do so. Even with their differences, the two groups were able to work together to defeat Unz by agreeing on the following guidelines for both coalitions in the work:
- Everyone would honor the mainstream campaign message in front of the press;
- People could frame the messages differently in communities of color; and
- There would be open lines of communication and collaboration between the two groups regarding presentations and events.
Many grassroots efforts helped to contribute to the defeat of Amendment 31 across the state. Members of Padres and Jovenes Unidos (the youth component of Padres Unidos) dedicated weekends throughout the fall to walking their neighborhoods with flyers, talking with people, registering voters door-to-door, and distributing information at their churches. At one housing project, volunteers registered more than 75 first-time voters. In their schools, students made classroom presentations to raise awareness and gain support for the campaign. People marched and spoke at rallies, gave interviews, and appeared on Spanish-language TV to explain how the amendment would affect the immigrant community. Students also organized a community forum and debate at their high school.
We feel we learned a number of lessons in defeating Amendment 31 in Colorado:
- We must build broad-based coalitions and unifying entities to defeat such measures;
- Different messages will resonate with different nationalities and groups of people, and we should not negate one for the other;
- We need to consciously build unity by educating one another on the reasons for coming together to defeat such attacks; and
- While we need to immediately defend the right to bilingual education and defeat backwards initiatives such as Amendment 31, we also need to see this organizing as part of building a movement for the long haul that has the capacity to take up future struggles for language rights and educational justice for all.