Bilingual ed bill gets initial House OK

BOSTON—Trying to head off a referendum aimed at scrapping bilingual education, the House yesterday gave initial approval to legislation that would reform the state’s method of instructing foreign students.

The bill would allow school districts to choose among moving students gradually into English-only instruction, intensive ”immersion” or classes in which English and non-English-speaking students learn one another’s languages.

Co-sponsored by state Sen. Robert A. Antonioni, D-Leominster, and Rep. Peter J. Larkin, D-Pittsfield, the measure limits participation to two years with a third year if necessary, and creates a state office to oversee the program.

Backers have positioned the bill as an overhaul of a 30-year-old system that is ripe for change because of the poor academic performance of many immigrants, but one that preserves valuable parts of the current approach. ”This bill we’re looking at is a reform in the right direction. More importantly, it’s going to improve results,” Mr. Larkin said on the House floor. ”It will allow districts to form a plan that meets their needs, then hold them accountable.

”We have left too many limited-English-proficiency students behind, and these students are too important to us,” he added.

The bill passed by voice vote and now moves to a third reading, meaning it must be voted on again before being sent to the Senate. It has until July 31, the end of the legislative session, to be taken up by the Senate.

The referendum, which is headed for the Nov. 5 ballot, is the brainchild of California multimillionaire Ron Unz and has been promoted by state Sen. Guy W. Glodis, D-Auburn. Mr. Unz bankrolled a similar measure that led to the overhaul of the California bilingual system.

The initiative campaign is about 100 signatures shy of the 9,500 certified signatures needed by tomorrow’s deadline, according to the Secretary of State’s office. Initiative backers submitted 57,000 signatures in the spring in the first qualifying round.

The ballot measure would replace the existing ”transitional” system — in which students learn mostly in their own language for an average of three years — with a one-year program that immerses immigrant students in English. After the year, they would be moved into regular classes, though waivers would be available in some instances.

The controversial measure has pitted critics who maintain the current system holds immigrants back against bilingual education professionals and others who say the initiative is harsh, inflexible and hostile to foreigners.

Supporters of the Unz measure said the bill approved yesterday allows too much of the status quo to remain intact, and would empower bilingual activists to pressure school boards to keep existing ineffective programs.

Mr. Glodis called the Antonioni-Larkin bill a ”watered-down sellout that’s basically just in response to the referendum.”

”If there was no threat of a referendum, you can bet your bottom dollar that the Legislature wouldn’t be talking about bilingual education,” he said in an interview. ”I’ve been trying to move this forward for three years and it’s never gotten out of committee.

”They’ve bottled it up and bottled it up, and finally come up with a watered-down version,” Mr. Glodis continued.

Many opponents of the initiative support the Antonioni-Larkin bill as a legitimate compromise.

”We laud the House for taking up the reform measure, which we feel will lead to a more cost-effective system than importing a failed system from California,” said Owen Egan, spokesman for the Committee for Fairness to Children and Teachers, a teachers union-backed coalition.

A competing bill filed by Rep. Antonio F.D. Cabral, D-New Bedford, an immigrant from the Azores islands and vocal advocate for bilingual education, would keep the current system largely intact and give parents more control.

Mr. Cabral had succeeded in holding up debate on the Antonioni-Larkin measure in the spring while he lobbied for his provisions. Two dates that had been scheduled to take up bilingual education bills last month were postponed.

Yesterday, Mr. Cabral spoke at length on behalf of an amendment that would substitute his bill. The measure was rejected by a 109-34 vote. He also attempted unsuccessfully to add other amendments to the main bill.

”Bilingual education in Massachusetts has worked, by and large, for the majority of the children over the years,” Mr. Cabral said. ”It has had its problems, but by and large, it has served well those students who need to make the transition to English.”

But in response to Mr. Cabral’s pressure, Mr. Antonioni and Mr. Larkin added a number of changes that included requirements that school districts notify parents before developing a new bilingual plan; regularly determine whether bilingual students are measuring up to state academic standards; and allow teachers to be certified in English as a second language as well as bilingual education.

Yesterday, liberal lawmakers also succeeded in adding several ”friendly” amendments to the bill.

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