State officials last week certified a state representative’s ballot initiative to preserve bilingual education in Massachusetts, stepping up the fight over the embattled program.

The initiative, written by state Representative Jarrett T. Barrios, responds to other ballot proposals by Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz to get rid of the state’s 30-year-old bilingual education programs.

State Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly certified both proposals, meaning they pass constitutional muster. Both sides must gather 57,100 signatures by Dec. 5 for their initiatives to appear on the November 2002 ballot.

Barrios, a Cambridge Democrat, said he isn’t sure whether he and other bilingual-education advocates will use the initiative to counter Unz. But having the proposal gives bilingual proponents a strategic option, he said.

Massachusetts lets bilingual students take classes in their native tongues for up to three years, although critics say that students often stay much longer. Unz’s initiative would give students one year of intense English classes before moving to regular education.

Barrios’s initiative would present three options for bilingual education.
Districts could create programs where all students, including English-speaking ones, learn English and another language. In addition,
districts could offer intense English classes, but at least 20 percent of the instruction has to be in the students’ native tongue.

Finally, districts could offer a program where bilingual students learn English, and where their language is taught throughout the school’s curriculum so that English-speakers can learn it as well.

Unz said Barrios’s proposals wouldn’t change the state’s bilingual education programs, which he said aren’t succeeding in teaching students English quickly enough.

Barrios said that even if his proposal doesn’t appear on the ballot, it will help generate ideas to preserve bilingual education.

”We have a lot of work to do to effectively respond to Mr. Unz’s one-size-fits-all mistakes,” he said.

Anand Vaishnav can be reached by e-mail at

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