Speak English: Partisan Politics Strain Link Connecting Immigration, Education Reform
Colorado made national headlines this year when lawmakers passed the ASSET bill providing in-state tuition for many undocumented high school graduates seeking a college education. Now an overhaul of the state’s public education funding formula, passed but pending enactment until voters approve a nearly $1 billion statewide tax initiative, would include special funding for students who are learning English as a second language.
Both of these bills passed on or near party-line votes, Democrats saying yes, Republicans mostly saying no.
“Remember that plaque at the bottom of the statue of liberty, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…’ that’s exactly what that bill was to me,” said Rep. Cheri Gerou of Evergreen, one of three House Republicans who voted in favor of ASSET this spring.
“The way the bill is written, the students have to apply for citizenship before they can receive the tuition reduction,” Rep. Gerou explained. “I don’t see why allowing bright students who want to better themselves to become American citizens would be a problem for the state of Colorado.”
In addition to Gerou, Rep. Navarro-Ratzlaff of Pueblo and Rep. Priola of Henderson also voted to support the ASSET bill, contributing to its passage a decade and six efforts after the bill was first proposed.
Just a month after that bill was sent to Gov. Hickenlooper for signing, legislators passed the sweeping Public School Finance Act, colloquially known as “Johnston’s Bill,” after Sen. Mike Johnston of Dener who spent two years coalition building before it moved through Senate and House without a single Republican vote.
“Through no one’s intention we’ve backed into a school funding system that’s highly inequitable and highly inadequate,” said Sen. Johnston of the current funding formula which hasn’t been updated in almost two decades. “It fails to take into consideration the needs of students and to fund students and systems accordingly.”
In addition to adjusting various pre-existing “weights” which divert extra funds to rural districts and to districts with students at risk of failing, the overhauled funding formula creates an entirely new weight for English language learners (ELLs).
“The provision in the School Finance Act for English-language learners is one of the most significant,” said Luis Torres, vice president of academic affairs at Metropolitan State University of Denver, who also testified on behalf of ASSET when that bill was first proposed in 2003. Torres, a Colorado native who grew up speaking Spanish, said the value of supporting students to master English cannot be underestimated when it comes to their overall success.
If the education reforms are funded, the new formula would evaluate English-learning students the same way but extend special funding from two to five years, “the length of time research suggests is necessary for ELL students to reach proficiency,” according to a paper written by Johnston’s staff. As with the expanded At-Risk weight, ELL students in highly concentrated areas of need could receive as much as 40 percent over base per-pupil funding to provide extra support and services.
“We shouldn’t care where these children are from, what their last name is, what language they speak,” said Denver Councilman Paul Lopez. “They should have every opportunity to prove to themselves, to their community and to their society that they can do it. When given a level playing field, these kids will succeed. It will only benefit our society to make that possible.”
Even though Navarro-Ratzlaff had sponsored a bill that would have shifted education funds to bolster English-language-learners, she didn’t vote for the school-funding overhaul this year.
Navarro-Ratzlaff did not respond to interview requests this week.
On Capitol Hill, Colorado’s lawmakers are even more starkly divided on the matter of education and immigration. Two months ago, every Republican Representative from Colorado voted to overturn the President’s executive order deferring deportation of undocumented immigrant youth — students brought to the country often as toddlers who have graduated from high school or served in the military. The order was essentially a provision of the overwhelmingly popular but stalled DREAM Act.
Colorado Republican U.S. Reps Scott Tipton and Cory Gardner this summer have been pressured on immigration by constituents, many of whom work in agriculture and rely heavily on undocumented laborers. But it is Republican Mike Coffman who has drawn the most heat around the issue.
Coffman’s Sixth Congressional District, redrawn in 2011, is no longer a safely white Republican stronghold. It’s an economically, politically and ethnically diverse swath of urban-suburban-exurban America spread east of Denver. Coffman recently wrote an op-ed for The Denver Post supporting immigration reform but, over 20 years as an elected official, he has established a long track record of hardline positions that have placed him in the company of polarizing public figures like former Congressman Tom Tancredo. Indeed, Tancredo represented Colorado’s Sixth District before handing it off to Coffman in 2008.
In 2011, Coffman pushed legislation to repeal section 203 of the Voting Rights act, which requires districts with 5 percent or more of voters not proficient in English to print bilingual ballots. That section also states that “the denial of the right to vote of such minority group citizens is ordinarily directly related to the unequal educational opportunities afforded them resulting in high illiteracy and low voting participation.”
As Colorado secretary of state, Coffman dedicated resources to searching for undocumented residents illegally registered to vote, although there was scant evidence many existed and, as a member of Congress, he pushed for English-only voter ballots, a position he has since backed away from. He argues that citizen applicants must meet higher standards of English-language proficiency than those currently in place.
Roughly a month separated Coffman’s vote against deferring student deportations and his Denver Post op-ed. It appeared under the headline “The time for immigration reform is now.”
“Lastly, comprehensive immigration reform must show compassion to the families that have been here regardless of their immigration status,” Coffman wrote. “Many have either children who were born here and are American citizens or children who grew up here, went to school here, and who know of no other country besides the United States. I believe that these young people should be afforded a pathway to citizenship.”
“No one is fooled by him,” Judith Marquez said of the Representative while she was on hunger strike for a stay of deportation on behalf of activist and mother Jeanette Vizguerra, who resides in Coffman’s district. “We really want action from him,” she continued, “commitment.”
Local politics speak to national politicians
While tension builds during Congress’s August recess over the comprehensive immigration reform languishing in the House, many Coloradans of both political parties are taking the opportunity to urge their Representatives to act.
“I really hope the national immigration reform bill that’s before Congress is approved,” said Torres. “I know it’s probably going to go through some modifications, but it’s very important for our delegation to support it. Whatever happens there, though, we in Colorado have made very positives steps towards moving our students forward.”
Other Colorado political activists, including Denver Councilman Paul Lopez who spoke at an immigration rally in Centennial this past weekend, are not as optimistic about current national politics — though equally determined to see reforms.
“A lack of leadership at the federal level, a lack of progress at the federal level, shouldn’t translate to a lack of leadership and progress at every other level,” said Lopez. “ASSET was a very important bill because while they’re figuring out what to do about immigration at the federal level, we can send our kids to college in the meantime. Maybe those kids can come up with a solution that our current Congress can’t.”
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