Econ-Atrocity: Bilingual Education Yes, Ron Unz No

By Rob Fetter and Stephanie Luce, CPE Staff Economists

Since the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 provided federal funding to school districts to assist them in adopting bilingual education programs, bilingual programs in many languages across the U.S. have flourished. Those committed to bilingual education continue to push their states and school districts to improve their programs, but bilingual education advocates have a new challenge: to fight off ballot initiatives that would eliminate the successes won to date.

On November 5, voters in Massachusetts and Colorado will vote on ballot initiatives that would end existing bilingual education programs in both states. The proposed initiatives – Constitutional Amendment 31 in Colorado and Question 2 in Massachusetts – would require students to go through a one-year “structured English immersion” program. Teaching materials would be in English only. After the first year, students would be integrated into regular classrooms and be prohibited from speaking in their native language. Further, teachers could be personally sued if found speaking in other languages in the classroom, and barred from public employment for five years. English learners in grades 2 and higher would have to take an annual test for English proficiency.

The ballot initiatives in both states are modeled after a 1998 California initiative and a 2000 measure in Arizona. The initiatives in all four states have been championed primarily by California millionaire Ron Unz. Of the $442,000 raised by supporters in Massachusetts, $300,000 has come from Unz and his California-based organization English for the Children.

There are many reasons to vote against the initiatives: they restrict the choices of individual parents, students, teachers, and administrators; punishments for teachers are exceptionally harsh; it is not clear whether structured English immersion is the best teaching strategy. Furthermore, the initiatives would require school districts to devote already scarce resources to implementing the new, more restrictive education and testing regime. Neither provides the additional funding to make this happen without draining money away from other priorities – like paying teachers, maintaining buildings, and expanding programs.

Costs for the initiatives would consist of retraining teachers to teach structured English immersion classes, buying new textbooks and materials, hiring additional staff to help English learners who can’t be promoted to the next grade, and designing and implementing the English proficiency tests. Jorge Garcia, director of bilingual programs in the Boulder Valley (Colorado) School District, reports that California school districts have seen costs rise by $300 million per year, and districts in Arizona have seen costs rise by $100 million per year, as a result of ballot initiatives passed in 1998 and 2000. Cost estimates for Massachusetts and Colorado are less clear, but Garcia estimates that costs just for designing the test in Colorado would be about $1 million per year. The Massachusetts Committee for Fairness to Children and Teachers released a report last week that estimated costs for the new initiative, based on local data and statistics from California, of about $125 million over two years if the initiative were fully implemented. Question 2 advocates dispute that figure, but another group, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, agreed that the costs for retraining teachers in the first year would be at least $30 million and that costs would ultimately depend on whether the initiative is fully implemented.

If the approach championed by Unz and his supporters were clearly the best strategy for teaching English, then investing millions of dollars into that approach would be more worthwhile. Opponents and supporters of the ballot initiatives agree that teaching English should be a high priority. But numerous studies have found that structured English immersion is not the best approach for all students. Even Secretary of Education Rod Paige opposes the ballot initiatives, saying decisions about English and native language instruction should be made at the point of instruction.

If voters turn down Colorado Amendment 31 and Massachusetts Question 2, then limited financial resources can be devoted to instruction, and decisions about how to teach English can be made, using the most current research, by officials and parents who know each child’s situation best. Rather than spending large amounts of money and time on initiatives and state laws, those who truly want to support limited English proficiency children in school would do best to make more resources available to educators so that they can teach.


Massachusetts English Plus website,

Colorado English Plus website,

Judy Foreman, “Two Tongues Better than One,” Boston Globe, September 10, 2002.

Steve Leblanc, “Businesses, Out-of-State Donors Bankrolling Ballot Questions,” Boston Daily News, October 23, 2002.

Lorna Rivera, “Latinos in Massachusetts: Education,” The Mauricio Gaston Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy, April 2002.

Richard Rothstein, “Voter Mandates and Bilingual Education,” New York Times, October 23, 2002.

Anand Vaishnav, “Sides Debate Cost of Switch to English-Immersion Plan,” Boston Globe, October 24, 2002.

History of Bilingual Education,” Rethinking Schools Online, Vol. 12, No. 3, Spring 1998.

(c) 2002 Center for Popular Economics

Econ-Atrocities are a periodic publication of the Center for Popular Economics. They are the work of their authors and reflect their author’s opinions and analyses. CPE does not necessarily endorse any particular idea expressed in these articles.