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Mass. Voters May Get Choice On Bilingual Ed.

By Mary Ann Zehr — August 07, 2002 3 min read

Massachusetts lawmakers hope that a plan they approved last week to modify current bilingual education laws will persuade voters to defeat the anti-bilingual-education initiative on the November state ballot.

Acting Gov. Jane M. Swift, a Republican, is expected to sign the bill that outlines the changes.

“Hopefully, we’re going to make the case that this is the answer,” Rep. Peter J. Larkin, a Democrat, said of the bilingual education bill, which he sponsored in the House. “We’re offering a choice bill with accountability.”

Though the bill passed overwhelmingly last month in the House and Senate, Ms. Swift sent it back to lawmakers on July 31—the last day of their session. She asked them to cut a section that required school districts with 50 or more students with limited English skills who shared the same native language to provide at least two kinds of full-time programs for them. “Let the schools decide whether or not to provide two different programs,” said Sarah Magazine, a spokeswoman for the acting governor, in explaining Ms. Swift’s position.

Ms. Magazine said that lawmakers seemed to incorporate Ms. Swift’s request in the final bill that they approved 15 minutes before their session closed at midnight July 31, but that the governor still needed to analyze the bill before signing it.

Massachusetts legislators have not passed a measure to change bilingual education since 1971, when they mandated school districts provide transitional bilingual education if they had 20 or more students of the same language group. It was the first such state law in the nation.

The new legislation would drop that requirement, though it would permit districts to keep bilingual education as an option. It would also require districts to annually test the progress that English-language learners make in English.

Even if Ms. Swift signs the legislation, voters could replace it by approving the ballot initiative.

At issue are bilingual education classes, in which students receive instruction in their native languages while learning English. The method has been largely curtailed in California and Arizona, where voters approved anti-bilingual-education ballot initiatives similar to the one in Massachusetts. Ron K. Unz, a California businessman, financed the campaigns in California and Arizona. He is paying for the effort in Massachusetts to do the same.

Real Change?

Mr. Larkin said the new bill would move educators away from the debate over whether bilingual education or English immersion is the best method for teaching English to immigrant children.

“At the end of the day, they’re going to have to demonstrate English proficiency and academic success,” he said.

But Lincoln Tamayo, a former principal of Chelsea High School in Chelsea, Mass., and the co-chairman of the effort to get the anti-bilingual-education measure passed in the state, said the bill would do “nothing at all” to improve programs for Massachusetts’ 46,000 English-language learners.

“This is typical of politicians to give people a choice and call it reform,” he said. Real improvement, he argued, will come only when schools get rid of bilingual education.

Mr. Tamayo said that any choice provided by the new legislation would likely be overridden by lobbying from local Hispanic activists and bilingual educators.

Charles Glick, a consultant to the Committee for Fairness to Children and Teachers, a group fighting the ballot measure, countered that the largest group trying to keep bilingual education in schools is parents.

He said his group is pleased with the legislation that awaits Ms. Swift’s pen: “It has accountability standards, time limits, and allows choice and local flexibility.”

Also under the new legislation, school districts with only a few English-language learners would be required to provide only part-time English-as-a-second-language programs. If districts have 20 or more English-language learners of the same native-language group, they would need a full-time program.

Most of the programs authorized by the legislation—including “structured English immersion"—build in at least some use of a child’s native language. The legislation prohibits school districts from keeping students in bilingual education classes for more than three years.

The state ballot initiative, on the other hand, would replace all bilingual education programs in Massachusetts with “structured English immersion” programs “not normally intended to exceed one year.”

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A version of this article appeared in the August 07, 2002 edition of Education Week as Mass. Voters May Get Choice On Bilingual Ed.

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