ROCKTON, Mass., Oct. 2 ? All across this Boston suburb, lawns are dotted with signs promoting candidates running in the election next month. But there is virtual silence on a ballot measure that could change the lives of more than 35,000 students in the state.
The measure, like a similar one in Colorado, would replace the bilingual education program in the public schools with one meant to teach children English in a matter of months instead of years.
Approval of the measures would mean two more victories for the English immersion movement, after California and Arizona approved similar initiatives in 1998 and 2000.
The ballot propositions in both states call for all non-English speakers to be placed in English immersion classes for one year before being moved to mainstream classrooms. The approach would replace a 30-year-old policy of bilingual education in which students are taught subjects like math, science and social studies in their native languages, most often Spanish, while gradually being introduced to English.
Parents would be able to apply for waivers for their children to remain in bilingual education, though districts could reject such requests without explanation.
Teachers, parents and politicians on both sides of the debate say that teaching English as a second language to 4.4 million students in public schools is critical to helping them succeed in American society. But they are at odds over which approach is most effective.
“We are talking about the best way to teach English learners, but there does not seem to be a way to get a clear-cut answer to that,” said Robert Linquanti, a researcher for WestEd, which studies educational policies for effectiveness. Mr. Linquanti wrote a report for the California Legislature earlier this year that found no major effect from the switch to English immersion.
Teachers’ unions, school superintendents and Secretary of Education Rod Paige have voiced opposition to the initiatives. Although they do not necessarily favor bilingual education, they say individual districts or teachers should decide which approach to use.
The initiatives in both states are backed by Ron K. Unz, a Silicon Valley millionaire and software engineer who began an English immersion movement four years ago in California. Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for governor of Massachusetts, has endorsed the initiative while his Democratic opponent, Shannon P. O’Brien, has opposed it.
Rita Montero, a former Denver school board member and a leader of the English-only initiative in Colorado, argues that children cannot learn English with the bilingual approach.
“When you have students being taught in Spanish and expect them to learn English later on, they are just doomed to fail,” said Ms. Montero, who pulled her son out of a bilingual class 10 years ago. “This isn’t working and it is cheating children.”
But Susan McGilvray-Rivet, who oversees bilingual services in Framingham, Mass., says making children learn English while putting other subjects on hold will cause those students to fall further behind their English-speaking counterparts.
“The idea that these children shouldn’t learn the same material as other students is absurd,” Ms. McGilvray-Rivet said in a debate this week at Brandeis University. “We cannot expect everyone to learn at the same rate and then allow them to fail. They need support in their native language.”
Rosalie Porter, a former director of bilingual education who also spoke at the debate, responded that if students did not learn English soon after entering schools in the United States, they would languish and the largely Spanish-speaking population would continue to post low test scores.
English is a second language for about 4.6 percent of the students in Massachusetts public schools; in Colorado the figure is 8 percent. Both states use bilingual education and immersion, with most schools adopting some combination of the two.
In this middle-class suburb south of Boston, bilingual programs are offered in Spanish as well as Cape Verdean Creole and Haitian Creole. But the students also take some classes in English, including an eighth-grade reading class taught by Celeste Hoeg.
“Why was Johnny Appleseed a folk hero?” Ms. Hoeg asked her class one recent morning, pointing to a diagram on the chalkboard. “Do you remember what a folk hero is?”
Clifford Louissaint, who arrived from Cape Verde six years ago, eagerly raised his hand. “Someone who has done something to help people, like firefighters,” he answered.
Nearby, a student translated Clifford’s answer for a girl who arrived this year from Brazil. The students’ next class, social studies, was taught in their native language.
In California, where 25 percent of the state’s students are not native English speakers, voters approved an English immersion program by 61 percent to 39 percent in 1998. Since then, test scores in first through third grades have climbed, with 27 percent of English learners scoring above the 50th percentile, up from 13 percent four years ago. There have been none of the sharp declines that some opponents of the proposition predicted.
Still, it is not clear whether non-English speaking pupils are learning the language any faster. About 7.8 percent of California students were moved to mainstream English classes in 2002, compared with 7 percent in 1998, before the initiative passed.
Nationwide, about 850,000 students who speak English as a second language were in bilingual education programs in 2000, compared with 976,000 enrolled in English-only programs, according to the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition. More than 2 million are in programs that combine the two approaches.
Current polls show that about 60 percent of voters in both Colorado and Massachusetts favor the limits on bilingual education. But last week Patricia Stryker, a Fort Collins, Colo., philanthropist, donated $3 million to the Colorado campaign to retain bilingual education, and supporters of the measure concede that the expected media blitz could help defeat the measure.
Mr. Unz said he had spent about $1 million on the initiatives in the four states since 1998. Whether or not the latest initiatives are approved, Mr. Unz is likely to continue trying to eliminate bilingual education elsewhere. He has said he has considered mounting campaigns or legal battles to install English immersion progams in Oregon, Illinois and New York.
The initiatives allow for parents to request waivers, and Mr. Unz has criticized California districts for granting thousands of waivers since 1998. The current ballot measures would allow teachers and other school officials to be sued if they pressured parents to request such waivers or could not provide sound reasons for granting them.
In both states, opponents of the initiatives have focused on the lawsuit issue. In Massachusetts, the committee against the initiative has distributed bumper stickers and signs reading, “Don’t Sue Teachers.”
School officials are unsure how school systems would change or how the laws would be enforced if the proposals pass. “I try not to think about it,” said Dr. McGilvray-Rivet of Framingham. “We just don’t know what we would do.”