Squaring off on a controversial November ballot question, leading gubernatorial hopefuls Shannon O’Brien and Mitt Romney have staked out opposing positions on whether to scrap the state’s bilingual education program in favor of a single year of English ”immersion.”
Yesterday, O’Brien denounced the initiative, promoted by California businessman Ron K. Unz, as a ”one-size-fits-all solution.” Instead, the Democrat backed recently approved changes to the Commonwealth’s 30-year-old bilingual education law that allow school districts to employ different strategies for reaching nonnative English speakers. Designed to blunt the Unz initiative, the new rules also require annual testing and tougher state oversight.
Romney backs the Unz initiative, and rolled out a campaign ad last week in which the Republican pledges to ”end the failed idea of bilingual education in our schools and teach children English instead.”
If the initiative, encompassed in ballot Question 2, passes on Nov. 5, the next governor will be responsible for implementing it. In California, where Unz bankrolled a similar proposal in 1998, the state’s commitment to the new law has been at issue.
For three decades, Massachusetts school districts that had 20 or more children who were nonnative English speakers and spoke the same language had to provide a ”transitional bilingual education” program for up to three years. Students learned English but were taught other subjects in their native tongue.
Under the Unz proposal, all nonnative English speakers would be placed in one-year ”sheltered immersion” classes in which instruction would be in English. Waivers would be granted for some older children and special-needs students.
In August, Acting Governor Jane Swift signed an overhaul of bilingual education hoping it will persuade voters to reject the ballot queston. The law, which took effect immediately, allows schools to pick from six methods of teaching English to children who are not fluent in the language, or create their own method. In districts with more than 50 children in the same language group, at least two programs must be offered. The law also requires annual assessments of student progress and lets the state step in if a school district is ”underperforming.”
O’Brien called those recently approved changes ”a good, tough compromise” and noted that many GOP legislators backed the bill.
”The Republicans in the Legislature understand that this bill requires accountability. It requires greater, intensive work to transition children out of bilingual programs and into English classes,” she said.
But because the recent changes would allow schools to continue the traditional strategy, Romney views them as ”a status quo protection act,” said his spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom. Romney agrees with Unz and other critics who say bilingual education programs coddle students, leaving them far behind their English-speaking classmates.
”If you’re going to change the system, change the system – don’t tinker around the edges,” Fehrnstrom said.
Both O’Brien and Romney are trying to portray their stance as the ”moderate” one. O’Brien spokesman Adrian Durbin said the Unz initiative is ”supported by the far right. … This is another example of Mitt Romney masquerading as a moderate.”
For his part, Romney is quick to note that while he supports the Unz initiative, he is opposed to a provision of the proposal that would allow parents to sue teachers who instruct in a language other than English. Opponents call the provision overly harsh.
”Mitt Romney would vote for Question 2. If it passes, however, we’d work with the Legislature to remove the punitive feature that exposes teachers to liability,” Fehrnstrom said.
Globe correspondent Chris Tangney contributed to this report.