Billionaire Fights Pro-English Ballot Initiative

Why would a billionaire heiress spend millions of dollars to keep immigrant children in Colorado from learning English? Pat Stryker, who ranks 234 on the Forbes magazine list of the 400 richest Americans, announced last week that she is giving $3 million to help defeat a Colorado ballot initiative that would replace bilingual programs with English immersion for the state’s Spanish-speaking students.

Surely Stryker isn’t trying to guarantee cheap labor down the road by denying Latino youngsters the single most important skill they will need to succeed in America. No, her motives are far more benign-but the effect is every bit as pernicious.

Stryker wants her daughter to learn Spanish. She thinks it would be nifty if her daughter became bilingual. Of course, the best way for her child to learn Spanish is to expose her to native Spanish speakers. If the child hears Spanish spoken for several hours each day and is able to practice speaking Spanish with her schoolmates, she stands a good chance of actually learning the language.

In other words, Stryker wants to immerse her child in Spanish because she knows that’s the best way to learn a new language, so she’s enrolled her daughter in a dual Spanish/English immersion program in a local public school. Now Stryker is afraid that the English immersion ballot initiative might deprive her daughter of her classmate-tutors. It just won’t be the same without all those cute little brown classmates helping her daughter trill her R’s properly or teaching her when to use "tu" instead of "usted."

But these are exactly the same reasons most immigrant parents want their children immersed in English. They know-even without the benefit of Ms. Stryker’s college education-that children don’t learn to speak a new language without being constantly exposed to it.

No doubt Stryker’s daughter is learning enough Spanish in her three or four hours a day to get by when the family vacations on the beaches of the Costa del Sol or Acapulco. And think how handy it will be when she has to explain to the maid not to throw the cashmere sweater into the washing machine.

But the benefits to the Spanish speakers in the classroom are not nearly so clear. These children will have to learn English well enough to function in it permanently. They have to learn English well enough to study history in English, to take college entrance exams in English, to find jobs when they complete school.

Wouldn’t it be better to give them an entire day’s instruction in English? And wouldn’t they be better off being encouraged to speak English to their classmates all the time, so they could have maximum practice in pronouncing the language and learning its syntax and grammar?

Stryker’s $3-million donation is the largest political contribution in Colorado history. The group receiving the money-the misnamed "English Plus" campaign-promises to use every penny in attack ads to defeat the English immersion initiative. English Plus, made up mostly of bilingual teachers and Anglo liberals, would be renamed Spanish First if truth-in-advertising laws applied. Their aim is to keep Hispanic youngsters in Spanish-dominant classrooms for a minimum of six to eight years.

Similar efforts to defeat English immersion ballot initiatives failed in California and Arizona. In California, the head of a Spanish-language television network gave $1.5 million to defeat Proposition 227 in 1998, but failed to do anything more than scare Latino parents into opposing the measure, which they initially supported.

Nonetheless, the California initiative won by nearly two-thirds of the vote. And the result has been a whopping success. Latino youngsters are not only learning English more quickly, their test scores in other subjects have improved as well, going up-by double digits in some cases-each year since English immersion replaced bilingual education.

Ms. Stryker’s millions could be better spent helping poor Hispanic children learn English. There’d still be plenty left over to set up her own Spanish immersion school for the benefit of the children of wealthy liberals.