Heated hearing on bilingual education

The legislative hearing on the future of bilingual education in Massachusetts began yesterday as an examination of public policy. But emotion ruled the day.

The chancellor of Boston University told a state representative to ”shut up.” Lawmakers sparred with professors. And high school students shook protest signs, written in Chinese and English, outside on the damp pavement.

”This is a fairly average reception,” said California millionaire Ron Unz, who is bankrolling a November ballot initiative to scrap Massachusetts’ bilingual education law, the oldest in the nation.

The long-awaited State House hearing dissected four measures, including Unz’s, to tighten or throw out the Bay State’s 1971 bilingual education law. It drew hundreds of fidgeting students, parents of many ethnic backgrounds, legislators of both parties, superintendents of districts big and small, and experts of varying temperaments.

”This is not a spectator sport,” warned state Representative Peter J. Larkin, cochairman of the Legislature’s Education Committee, as he banged his gavel to quiet the crowd. ”This is a public hearing.”

Critics of Massachusetts’ bilingual programs say they don’t teach enough English to immigrant children; supporters say the Commonwealth’s 45,000 limited-English students need more than the one year that Unz and his allies propose. Currently, students can spend up to three years in bilingual classes, where they learn most subjects in their native tongues. Many schools, however, exceed the three-year cap.

Unz’s initiative, which has sparked the most controversy, would immerse bilingual students in one-year English classes before moving them to regular education, with some exceptions. Voters in Arizona and California have passed it by large margins.

”We absolutely do not need a California software magnate to tell us how to make public policy decisions here in Massachusetts,” insisted state AFL-CIO President Robert J. Haynes as applause and whistles rang out.

Unz, nearby, chewed on a pen and smiled slightly. Yesterday, he presented his interpretation of test scores to show that students in English-speaking classes outpaced those who remained in bilingual courses. Test scores for Latino students, who make up the bulk of limited-English students in California, also rose, he said.

”If you get rid of bilingual education, the test scores of students in Massachusetts will rise as rapidly as they have in California,” Unz said.

Legislators pointed out that all California students posted better test scores and that the increase could stem from other reforms, such as lower class sizes. Some lawmakers dismissed his statistics as selective.

State Representative Marie P. St. Fleur, a Dorchester Democrat, questioned the goal of English immersion classes: ”To order a sandwich or ask directions to the restroom? Or is it really to be able to have sufficient English to master the content kids have to be able to master?”

Boston University Chancellor John R. Silber, who tried to revamp bilingual programs when he chaired the State Board of Education, blasted bilingual education as an ”utter failure.” As Silber spoke to reporters, state Representative Antonio Cabral, a bilingual supporter, confronted him and asked why Boston University, which runs the Chelsea public schools, did not implement one-year immersion there.

”You had the option,” said Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat. ”I have the results from Chelsea. They’re not better than anywhere else.”

”Will you shut up for a while and let me answer the question?” Silber snapped, adding later, ”We have parents there who are under constant pressure by Hispanic activists to keep children in bilingual programs.”

Back inside the auditorium, testimony continued on the other three bills, which have similar planks. Cabral’s would strengthen parent choice in selecting bilingual programs. Larkin’s and state Senator Robert A. Antonioni’s bill would restrict bilingual education to three years while tightening oversight for bilingual teachers and requiring stiffer state monitoring. A similar proposal from Acting Governor Jane Swift would limit bilingual classes to two years.

The Larkin-Antonioni bill drew support from superintendents who say it balances flexibility and tighter state oversight.

The committee will vote on the bills in the next few weeks.

Anand Vaishnav can be reached at vaishnav@globe.com

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