A bilingual education reform bill designed to undercut a November ballot initiative that would bring a California-style “immersion” system to Massachusetts schools moved closer to winning the governor’s approval last night.

Acting Gov. Jane M. Swift yesterday sent the bill back to lawmakers, objecting to and amending a section that called on school districts to set up two “full-time” programs for English language learners. Swift feared that provision would simply shelter the state’s long-criticized but unreformed transitional bilingual education program.

Legislators last night expected to approve the governor’s amendment and return the bill to her office.

Even if enacted, the fate of bilingual education for 45,000 students rests with the November ballot initiative driven by California millionaire Ron Unz.

That measure would institute the English immersion requirement California voters approved in 1998, which mandates most students spend one year in an immersion class and then switch to classes taught in English.

The Legislature’s bill, co-sponsored by state Sen. Robert A. Antonioni (D-Leominster) and state Rep. Peter Larkin (D-Pittsfield), would allow districts to offer a range of programs for English learners, require annual progress assessment, upgrade teacher credentials and limit students to two years of bilingual classes.

While Swift has not taken a definitive stance on the Unz initiative, her blueprint for reform marked a distinct departure from the Unz plan, which critics have derided as “one size fits all” education policy.

“We’ve said all along that bilingual education programs need to be changed,” said Swift spokesman James Borghesani. “We think we’ve put forward a very effective method of change. If this does not happen, it’s likely that the Unz initiative will be the fallback plan.”

The ballot measure has enjoyed a wide margin of support in recent polls. Unz yesterday remained skeptical of the reform claims made by the compromise bill’s supporters.

“It’s always seemed to our side that the bill essentially preserves the old system of transitional bilingual education,” Unz said. “I think with the Legislature having to deal with health care issues for millions of Massachusetts residents, why would they take up a bill that doesn’t change much and ultimately could be rendered moot by our initiative?”

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