Bill would overhaul bilingual education

Backers hope to halt push for elimination

Hoping to preserve bilingual education by changing it, a state lawmaker today will propose the first major overhaul of the Commonwealth’s bilingual law since it was put on the books in 1971.

Representative Antonio Cabral’s bill, still in draft form yesterday, would stiffen some teaching and testing standards while giving schools alternatives to the traditional bilingual formula – allowing, for example, a
”two-way” approach that teaches all students two languages. The New Bedford Democrat and his allies hope the measure will fend off a ballot initiative such as the ones that scrapped bilingual education in California and Arizona.

The Silicon Valley millionaire who financed those efforts, Ron K. Unz, is considering paying for one in Massachusetts.

Representative Jarrett Barrios, who helped Cabral craft the bill, described it as a ”third way” between the 30-year-old method of bilingual education practiced in most of the Commonwealth and Unz’s plan, which virtually eliminates bilingual instruction.

”Ron Unz is right when he says that we need to reform bilingual education,” the Cambridge Democrat said.”But Ron Unz is wrong to throw out transitional bilingual education and replace it with a one-size-fits-all solution that will harm many immigrant children.”

State Senator Guy Glodis, a leading opponent of bilingual education, said Cabral’s measure does not go far enough. As he did last year, Glodis has filed a bill that would eliminate bilingual education. If that bill does not advance or if Cabral’s bill is not changed significantly, Glodis said, he would push a ballot initiative – perhaps with Unz’s money – next year.

”They’ve been forced to acknowledge that the present bilingual system has not worked. At long last, it’s finally getting the attention it deserves,”
the Worcester Republican said. ”But we still have not found common ground on how to reform the system.”

Both measures will be discussed today before the Legislature’s Joint Education Committee.

Under the state’s bilingual law, the nation’s first, any district with 20 or more children who have a limited grasp of English and speak the same language must provide a transitional bilingual program for up to three years. The students learn English, but they learn math, science, and other subjects in their native tongue until their English improves.

But critics say that three years often turn into four, five, or six years and that the system hurts students by coddling them.

”It’s a failure of epic proportions,” said Glodis, noting that many bilingual students do poorly on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam. ”What was originally intended to assist bilingual students has ultimately failed bilingual students.”

Glodis’s bill, which mirrors the California and Arizona initiatives, would replace bilingual education with one year of English immersion. Parents or teachers could approve a one-year extension.

Cabral and Barrios say that is the wrong approach. Their proposal would preserve the current system, if parents in a district want it, but offer several others.

Under ”two-way bilingual education,” in use in Cambridge, native and non-native English speakers are taught in both languages in the same classroom.

The second option, ”structured immersion,” is heavy on English, but non-English speakers spend at least 30 percent of the school day practicing their native tongue.

A ”modified bilingual/world language program,” is similar to structured immersion but the entire school ”embraces both the language and culture of the language-minority group.” English speakers learn the minority language.

The Cabral bill would require annual tests of students on their grasp of English and would clarify qualifications for bilingual teachers and improve training.

Supporters of Cabral’s bill know they can’t afford to fail: Unz’s California initiative, Proposition 227, passed with 61 percent of the vote in 1998.
Seemingly rosy results in that state, though disputed by some, converted even leading opponents of the measure. In November, Unz repeated the feat in Arizona.

Unz said yesterday he is not impressed with Cabral’s proposal. ”To be honest it sounds like the three choices are bilingual, bilingual,
bilingual,” Unz said. ”It sounds like the goal of these programs is primarily to maintain a native language.”

Unz, however, said he is focusing on Colorado and New York City and wouldn’t come to Massachusetts unless there is ”a critical mass of credible local supporters.”

Backers of Cabral’s bill hope it will prevent that critical mass from developing. ”This is a comprehensive response,” said Roger Rice, who heads Multicultural Education, Training and Advocacy Inc., a national pro-bilingual group based in Somerville.

”I would hope that if the Legislature passes this and the governor signs this, it would mean that the leadership of both parties are committed to a Massachusetts solution and will resist a guy who has the nerve to come to the State House and say, `Pass my California model or else.”’

Scott Greenberger can be reached by e-mail at

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