House votes to revamp bilingual ed

Bill advances; rival proposal on Nov. ballot

With a November ballot initiative threatening to wipe out Massachusetts bilingual education programs, the state House of Representatives yesterday overwhelmingly passed a bill that revamps bilingual classes through less Draconian measures.

With a 137-14 vote, the House passed legislation that requires districts to involve parents in creating bilingual programs and mandates that bilingual teachers be proficient in English. The bill also grants new powers to the state Department of Education: It requires the department to monitor students’ progress in learning English and even lets the state declare districts ”underperforming” if they don’t boost the skills of their limited-English learners.

The changes represent the most far-reaching overhaul of the state’s 31-year-old bilingual education program law, the oldest in the nation. It also comes just four months before voters face a ballot question to throw out bilingual programs, a measure that has successfully passed in California and Arizona, despite their sizeable immigrant populations.

”We have failed our limited-English-proficient students for too long,” said state Representative Peter J. Larkin, a Pittsfield Democrat and the bill’s sponsor in the House. ”What this bill has done is given immigrant children hope.”

Although lawmakers denied the ballot question forced their hands, it clearly played a role. The initiative, partially financed by Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz, would require that students take one-year English immersion classes before moving to regular courses. People on both sides of the debate say it’s unclear whether voters will pass the Unz question regardless of the Legislature’s work reforming bilingual education. Still, lawmakers yesterday said they hope voters will not ignore the legislation.

”This bill is not perfect. But it is much better than what we have now, and far better than what is on the horizon in November,” said state Representative Jarrett T. Barrios, a Cambridge Democrat and bilingual backer.

Foes of Unz’s effort say their next move is to spread the word about the bill as an alternative to the ballot question. Roger Rice, who helps lead the Committee for Fairness to Children and Teachers, said the public will sour on Unz once it understands the initiative’s more stringent planks, such as suing teachers who don’t follow the English-only requirements.

”If they know about [the bill], they’re going to be pleased,” Rice said.

But Lincoln Tamayo, who heads Unz’s Massachusetts campaign, said an Unz victory would make Larkin’s bill ”short-lived.”

”This shows how completely out of touch the Legislature is with the will of the overwhelming majority of immigrant parents and their own constituents,” said Tamayo, former principal of Chelsea High School.

Massachusetts lets students new to this country take most classes in their native tongues and gradually move to courses in English. Supporters say it has succeeded in teaching strong written and spoken English, which can take from two to seven years, according to some research. But opponents claim bilingual classes don’t teach English fast enough and let some students learn subjects in their native language for years. About 40,000 students are enrolled in bilingual programs statewide.

The opposition to yesterday’s bill paired liberal Democrats eager to protect bilingual education in its current form with conservative Republicans who felt Larkin’s bill didn’t go far enough. State Representative Antonio F.D. Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat, tried to attach amendments that would require schools to offer the bilingual classes that exist now as an option, a choice that the bill does not guarantee but leaves up to the district. Those and other Cabral amendments were easily defeated.

”This bill sets a mechanism in place that allows school districts to abolish bilingual education,” said Cabral, vowing to take his fight to the state Senate, where the bill heads next.

At one point during the debate, Cabral was so frustrated that he chided a mostly empty chamber for ignoring the debate. ”If you believe that immersion works, maybe we can have this debate in Portuguese today,” he said.

Larkin drafted the bill with state Senator Robert A. Antonioni, his cochair on the Legislature’s education committee. If it passes the Senate and is signed by Acting Governor Jane Swift, the bill would take effect in July 2003; its provisions would cost approximately $7 million

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