In plain English, the Legislature’s joint Education Committee said no yesterday to Governor William F. Weld’s bill to allow the state takeover of schools that do not move students out of bilingual education within three years.
Legislators sided with parents and activists who testified against the bill, and asked tough questions of education officials who came to support the proposal.
The lawmakers suggested supporters had not fully researched the legislation’s effectiveness or its compliance with federal civil rights laws.
“Title VI requires school districts that receive federal financial assistance to offer special language instruction to bilingual students until they have become proficient enough in English to participate effectively in the regular classroom,” read a letter to the committee from Thomas J. Hibino, the US Department of Education’s top regional official.
“If the state prohibits school districts from meeting this Title VI obligation, the state is also in violation of Title VI.”
Weld yesterday strongly defended his bill, saying the goal of bilingual programs should be “kids getting fluent in our common language and participating fully in our common life.”
“I really feel pretty strongly on this point, that we owe it to the kids to get them in and get them out,” Weld told reporters outside his State House office. “If somebody has a cognitive learning disorder, special needs, that’s different. But absent that factor, I think a three-year limit on participation in the program is doing the kids a favor.”
Weld added that in contemplating reforms, “it’s important to look at it from the point of view of the kids who are . . . supposedly advantaged by this program rather than anybody who may have a job in the program.”
Legislators also criticized bill components that allow school districts to increase the student-to-teacher ratio in bilingual classes and, after one year, to force students from bilingual classes and into “structured immersion programs.”
Lawmakers’ criticism countered endorsements of the legislation by state Board of Education chairman John R. Silber and state education commissioner Robert V. Antonucci.
Silber said the current system is “counterproductive and stupid” because it allows them to linger in bilingual education programs, and fails more than 21 percent of its students.
“I don’t buy that,” said Sen. Robert A. Antonioni (D-Leominster).
Bill opponents filled the committee hearing room and marched outside with signs and banners.
Virginia Vogel Zanger, a member of the Massachusetts Coalition for Bilingual Education, told the committee her group thinks the bill aims to cut costs, not improve education.
Silber argued that improvements in bilingual education programs would raise the program’s success rate and suggested other students could be absorbed into special education programs.
However, Antonucci said that while many of those students would not be eligible for special education, the state would still have an obligation to educate them.
State education officials had a hard time answering committee members’ questions, because, they said, comprehensive data on the performance and success of bilingual students is not kept.
State Representative Antonio Cabral (D-New Bedford), a certified bilingual teacher, said he hoped the committee “in its infinite wisdom, sends this bill where it belongs, to a deep, deep study.”