Bilingual ed brawl

Silber enters fray, rips Mass. Teachers Union

Returning to the trenches of the state’s education reform battles, Boston University Chancellor John Silber emerged yesterday to declare the state’s bilingual education system a failure and support a controversial ballot initiative designed to overhaul instruction.

In broad strokes, he endorsed the initiative petition backed by California millionaire Ron Unz and condemned advocates and teacher unions lobbying to preserve much of the current system.

“They’ve got a financially vested interest in doing so,” Silber said, targeting familiar foes from his days as chairman of the state Board of Education. “The teachers union is working hard to perpetuate these jobs for persons who are incapable of advancing the educational promise of these children, but are trapping them in the `linguistic ghetto.’ ”

No sooner had Silber leaped into the fray during a day-long hearing on the Unz legislation and three other bilingual education overhaul bills than he was challenged in a hallway by State Rep. Antonio Cabral (D-New Bedford), the sponsor of one of the bills.

“Why haven’t you, as the head of BU, done anything with transitional bilingual education in Chelsea,” said Cabral.

As the two traded jabs, lawmakers pushed on with their hearing and grilled Unz, the software magnate who engineered the referendum that abolished California’s bilingual education program in 1998.

Unz’s organization, English For the Children of Massachusetts has spent roughly $200,000 – including $40,000 of Unz’s own cash – to push the ballot question toward the November election, Unz said.

His proposal would limit students lacking English proficiency to a one-year English immersion course, followed by placement in mainstream classes where lessons are delivered in English.

Massachusetts Teachers Association vice president Catherine Boudreau called the Unz measure “bad for children” because it mandates immersion at the expense of other programs.

“Parents who want their children taught only in English should continue to have the right to opt out of bilingual education programs, as they do now,” Boudreau said.

There are currently 40,000 students across Massachusetts enrolled in bilingual programs. Bilingual education varies widely from transitional bilingual education in which academics are taught in Spanish, to structured English immersion to two-way bilingual, which combines students who want to learn Spanish with Spanish speaking students.

Unz’s arrival in the Bay State has spurred lawmakers to action on the matter. Acting Gov. Jane M. Swift has offered her version of reform and so have the co-chairs of the legislature’s education committee, State. Rep. Peter Larkin (D-Pittsfield) and State Sen. Robert Antonioni (D-Leominster). In addition, Cabral and State. Rep. Marc Pacheco

(D-Taunton) have filed another bill.

Frequently the target of personal attacks about the motives behind his push for initiatives in states such as California, Arizona and Colorado, Unz dismissed claims he holds an anti-immigrant bias.

“The question to ask is: does bilingual education work? If it does, keep it. If it doesn’t, get rid of it,” said Unz.

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