For the second time in a week, backers of bilingual education have taken their fight against a November ballot initiative to the Supreme Judicial Court, hoping to defeat the effort to replace Massachusetts’ bilingual programs with English immersion.
A coalition of parents and advocacy groups filed a complaint with the high court calling the initiative’s summary – crafted by state Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly – misleading. The summary will be mailed to voters in informational booklets before the election and will appear on the ballot on Election Day.
In a statement, Reilly said the summary ”meets the constitutional requirements for a summary that’s both fair and concise.” He also noted that no bilingual education supporter protested the summary when it surfaced on the petitions used to gather signatures to place the question before voters.
The latest challenge is a sign, bilingual opponents said, of the other side’s desperation as the election approaches. The high court turned down the first complaint, which sought to state clearly on the ballot that teachers could be sued for not following the ballot initiative if it passed.
But bilingual supporters say they have a case. The actual initiative states that bilingual students will take English immersion classes for a period ”not normally intended to exceed one school year.” That language gives some wiggle room to schools if students need more time.
The summary, however, describes the immersion classes as ”normally not lasting more than one year.” Worded that way, the summary might lead voters to believe that the one-year cap is ironclad, bilingual education supporters say. The initiative to throw out Massachusetts’ bilingual education programs is partially financed by Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz, who led successful campaigns to overturn such classes in California and Arizona.
Scott P. Lewis, an attorney from the Boston firm Palmer & Dodge who is representing the coalition, said the plaintiffs want the court to strike the summary, thereby knocking the initiative off the ballot. That’s because the summary was used to gather the thousands of signatures needed to place the question before voters.
Bilingual supporters also point to statistics from California showing that fewer than 10 percent of bilingual students were ”redesignated” as English-speakers after the state passed the Unz initiative, which they say indicates that immersion classes take longer than a year.
”There’s a difference between saying something is an intention and a statement that … sets a clear expectation that it won’t last more than one year,” said Joan M. First, one of the lead plaintiffs and the executive director of the National Coalition of Advocates for Students. (The group itself is not involved in the SJC complaint, she said.) ”Either way you look at it, it’s really harmful for kids.”
Lincoln Tamayo, head of Unz’s Massachusetts campaign, called the latest legal challenge ”absurd.”
”This is an absolutely clear sign of the losing position these people have,” said Tamayo, former principal of Chelsea High School. ”They seem to be inherently incapable of arguing the merits of bilingual education.”
In a related development, legislators in the state House and Senate agreed yesterday on a final version of a bill overhauling bilingual education to send to Acting Governor Jane Swift.