BOSTON– The House yesterday formally approved legislation overhauling how foreign students learn English, but kept on a collision course with a November ballot referendum that would abolish the state’s bilingual education system.

The bill was given preliminary approval on July 1 after long debate. Lawmakers debated again yesterday, with Rep. Antonio F.D. Cabral, D-New Bedford, the leading advocate for the bilingual system, failing to make major changes to the bill.

The vote was 137-14. Central Massachusetts representatives voting against the bill were Paul K. Frost, R-Auburn, and Reed V. Hillman, R-Sturbridge.

The legislation now heads to the Senate, which must take it up by July 31, the end of the legislative session.

The initiative question was certified last week by Secretary of State William F. Galvin after supporters turned in the last 9,500 signatures needed to make it onto the ballot.

The referendum, bankrolled by California businessman Ron Unz and actively supported by state Sen. Guy W. Glodis, D-Auburn, would replace the current gradual approach to bilingual education with a yearlong program of intensive immersion in English.

Backers say too many foreign students are falling behind academically by becoming mired in bilingual classes.

Supporters of the bill, sponsored by state Sen. Robert A. Antonioni, D-Leominster, and Rep. Peter J. Larkin, D-Pittsfield, said the measure remedies many problems in the 30-year-old bilingual system and makes the referendum unnecessary.

The legislation would widen the options now available to school officials. The main approach currently is a ?transitional? system that keeps immigrant students in bilingual instruction for an average of three years before they move to regular classes.

Under the bill, school districts would be able to choose between transitional programs, immersion or ?two-way? classes in which English and non-native English-speaking students learn each other’s languages.

Districts would have to design specific plans for teaching foreign students, who would be limited to two years in the program with a third-year option. A new state office would oversee the programs, and parents would be given input by means of advisory councils.
Backers of the referendum denounced the Antonioni-Larkin bill as a false compromise that fails to meaningfully reform bilingual education.

?All this shows is how completely out of touch our legislators are with their constituents and immigrant children,? said Lincoln Tamayo, chairman of English for the Children of Massachusetts. ?They would have us believe that choice in the hands of bilingual educators and administrators is the way to reform the law.?

Supporters of the Unz measure say polling shows wide support for the referendum, and that the Legislature’s move will not dissuade them from proceeding.

However, given the Legislature’s failure to fund a voter-approved law to publicly finance political campaigns and its vote to freeze a voter-approved tax rollback, some doubt exists as to whether it would follow through should voters approve the bilingual initiative.

Mr. Tamayo warned that the Legislature will ignore this initiative campaign at its own peril.

?The Legislature is playing with fire,? he said. ?There may come a time when the electorate will say enough is enough.?

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