Plan To Rewrite Mass. Bilingual Ed. Law Debated

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A proposal to overhaul rules for bilingual education in Massachusetts has touched off what promises to become a larger battle over how to educate students who speak a language other than English.

It's a battle that's been fought before in Massachusetts and in several other states.

The Transitional Bilingual Education Act, which Massachusetts lawmakers crafted in 1971, requires school districts with 20 or more limited-English-proficient students who speak the same language to set up a transitional-bilingual-education program. Such programs generally teach students academic subjects using both their native language and English.

In 1995, Gov. William F. Weld proposed a bill that would have allowed districts to choose different approaches. Throngs of students, parents, and teachers packed hearings on the bill, protesting that it would kill bilingual education. Lawmakers eventually defeated the measure.

This year, observers say, history may repeat itself.

Last week, the state school board voted unanimously to solicit public comment on proposed changes in the state's TBE regulations--changes that advocates of bilingual education argue would substantially weaken the program.

Mr. Weld plans to propose a bill similar, if not identical, to the one he filed in 1995, according to Michael J. Sentance, the education adviser to the Republican governor. At least two of Mr. Weld's appointees on the state board--Chairman John R. Silber, the chancellor of Boston University, and James A. Peyser, the executive director of the Boston-based Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research--have openly criticized the state's TBE program.

"It's quite clear that they're trying to cripple the program without repealing it," said Roger L. Rice, a co-executive director of the national group Multicultural Education, Training and Advocacy Inc. in Somerville, Mass.

'No Ulterior Motive'

Roughly 42,600 Massachusetts students were enrolled last year in transitional bilingual education--about 5 percent of the state's 916,930 public school students. The vast majority of students in TBE programs are Hispanic.

Bilingual education is not being singled out for review, state officials said last week. Gov. Weld issued an executive order in 1995 calling on all agencies to review existing regulations. Though technically the state school board was not included in that order, the board volunteered to go along and has reviewed about half of the education rules, Mr. Sentance said.

"This is the first step in a discussion," said Robert V. Antonucci, the commissioner of education. Mr. Antonucci said he put forward the proposed changes in the bilingual regulations to streamline them. "Is it going to raise concerns among a lot of people? Yes. But there's no ulterior motive. The motive is to look at a program and make sure it's doing what it should."

To make real changes in bilingual education, it is the TBE law, not the regulations, that must be revamped, Mr. Antonucci said. Last week the state board called for comment on both the regulations and the law. Both likely will be addressed in public hearings.

But what the education department has characterized as largely technical changes, others view as a frontal attack. The commissioner's plan would eliminate about 30 TBE regulations and amend most others. Proposals that have drawn sharp criticism include:

  • Eliminating the requirement for schools to establish and regularly consult with a parent advisory panel on bilingual education. Schools would be required to foster parent participation in some form.
  • Ending the requirement that one person in a district, usually a bilingual director, oversee the TBE program and evaluate students.
  • Scrapping tbe class-size caps and replacing them with class-size averages. And the ban on combining students of different languages in one class would be abolished.

Playing Defense

"By poking holes in the infrastructure of a program, it's very easy to stand aside and let it crumble," said Marla E. Perez-Selles, the president of the Massachusetts Association for Bilingual Education.

The state board's action is being interpreted against the backdrop of two widely publicized reports on bilingual education in Massachusetts. One, commissioned by the state in 1994, decried the program's lack of accountability and declared that "despite being in place in Massachusetts for 23 years, we don't know whether TBE is effective," owing to a paucity of data. A second, issued by the Pioneer Institute, concluded that research does not support the state's TBE mandate--a conclusion that Mr. Peyser, the institute's director who serves on the state board, supports.

The proposed regulatory changes also are being viewed in light of what many have criticized as the board's heavy-handed treatment of the state's language arts curriculum frameworks, which some said focused too narrowly on Eurocentric literature and did not take sufficient account of language-minority students' needs. ("In Mass., Silber Goes to Battle Over History Framework Draft," Jan. 22, 1997.)

Mr. Silber said last week that no decision had been made on TBE. But he added: "The program as presently practiced is a disaster."

Although the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents has not yet reviewed the board's proposed changes, Executive Director Peter R. Finn said Mr. Silber is not the only one who thinks the program has problems.

"A significant percentage of kids appear not to benefit from the program," Mr. Finn said.

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