Massachusetts lawmakers yesterday inched closer to passing the biggest overhaul of bilingual education in 30 years, hoping to stave off a ballot initiative this fall that would gut bilingual programs statewide.

For more than three hours, members of the House of Representatives debated changes to a bill sponsored by Representative Peter J. Larkin, Democrat of Pittsfield, and Senator Robert A. Antonioni, Democrat of Leominster, both chairmen of the Legislature’s Joint Education Committee. A final vote, which many expected yesterday, was moved to July 9 because of the number of amendments legislators wanted to attach to the bill.

The delay clearly frustrated Larkin, who has pushed for quick passage to allow policy makers to concentrate on fighting the November ballot question led by California millionaire Ron Unz. Under Massachusetts’ 30-year-old bilingual education law, students who don’t speak English take most classes in their native tongues while learning English. Unz’s initiative would replace those classes with one year of English immersion before moving students to mainstream classes. About 40,000 students in the Bay State are currently in bilingual programs.

The Larkin-Antonioni bill would give the state’s 371 school districts some choice among bilingual education programs to offer, but it would enact annual English proficiency tests to determine whether the programs work. It would also require bilingual education teachers to be certified and enforce the three-year cap on the amount of time students spend in bilingual classes.

”English proficiency linked to academic success – that is the equation we hope to achieve,” Larkin said.

Lincoln Tamayo, chairman of the Unz campaign in Massachusetts, said Larkin’s bill will change little because it lets districts fall back on traditional bilingual programs, which opponents say haven’t worked.

Although legislators did not pass a final bill yesterday, they took to the floor often, some bearing stories of how they or their forebears had learned English not through bilingual programs but in all-English classes. Although he wasn’t present, Unz commanded much attention, with lawmakers warning that the voters will approve his ballot question if the Legislature drags its feet.

Representative Antonio F. D. Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat and bilingual education supporter, tried to substitute the Larkin-Antonioni bill with his own, which would require districts to offer bilingual programs currently in place in addition to others. Lawmakers defeated his substitution, 109 to 34, but Cabral said he will work with Larkin so that a bill more acceptable to bilingual education backers emerges next week.

”To stand here and debate and tell you bilingual education has been a failure in Massachusetts is absolutely incorrect,” Cabral said.

On a vote of 121 to 22, legislators also defeated a substitution by Representative Mary S. Rogeness, Republican of Longmeadow, that would have replaced Larkin’s legislation with language that resembled the Unz initiative.

”The voters will choose it in November if we don’t choose it now,” said Rogeness, arguing that bilingual programs have ”demonstrably failed.”

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