Bilingual law backers fight to alter ballot wording

Opponents of a November referendum to dismantle the state’s bilingual education law want the one-sentence ballot summary to say teachers could be sued or fired for failing to adhere to the petition’s mandate that most students be placed in English-only classes after one year.

Attorneys for opponents of the initiative will ask the Supreme Judicial Court today to revise the sentence crafted by the Attorney General’s office that describes the effects of a “yes” vote.

To teachers especially, the omission of the measure’s enforcement provisions – under which educators could lose their jobs for five years and be held liable for compensatory damages – is no small issue.

“We think it’s a major detail,” Catherine Boudreau, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said yesterday. “This is the way they are going to enforce education policy? To have something like this is unprecedented, unnecessary and just harsh.”

Attorneys for the Multicultural Education Training and Advocacy agency will argue on behalf of the plaintiffs. The teachers union and others oppose the ballot drive spearheaded by California millionaire Ron Unz, who headed similar measures in California and Arizona.

The “English Language Education in Public Schools” ballot will include the following descriptions:

A Yes Vote would require that, with limited exceptions, all public school children be taught English by being taught in all subjects in English and being placed in English language classrooms.

A No Vote would make no changes in English language education in public schools.
In a brief filed with the court, the AG’s office argues the descriptions are limited by law to one sentence and it is not practical to include every aspect of a measure within that space limit. Challenges to the AG’s descriptions are rarely upheld.

The AG’s office also argues the enforcement provisions are described in the Secretary of State’s voter information pamphlets, which are mailed out prior to the election. Those also include 150-word arguments from supporters and opponents of the measure.

In part, the initiative states, “the parent or legal guardian of any school child shall have legal standing to sue for enforcement of the provisions of this chapter, and if successful shall be awarded reasonable attorney’s fees, costs and compensatory damages.”

Unz said the legislation needs an enforcement mechanism in order to hold teachers, administrators and school committee members accountable.

“Anybody who refuses to follow the law, who refuses to teach children English, it could be a rational conclusion that they might deserve legal action,” said Unz.

But he noted that in the four years since his English immersion initiative passed in California, no one has been sued under similar enforcement provisions.

Comments are closed.