Middle Ground OK'd On Bilingual Ed

Panel Vote Eyes Ballot Challenge

State lawmakers yesterday backed a bill that would strike a middle ground in overhauling bilingual-education classrooms in Massachusetts, as they work to stave off a well-financed ballot challenge just seven months away.

The Legislature’s Joint Education Committee unanimously approved a bill aimed at uniting legislators – and voters – against a ballot question backed by a California software magnate that would scrap the Commonwealth’s 31-year-old bilingual-education law. The state House of Representatives and state Senate now will consider the legislation, drafted by state Senator Robert A. Antonioni, a Leominster Democrat, and state Representative Peter J. Larkin, a Pittsfield Democrat, Education Committee co-chairs. Until recently, there were three competing bilingual education bills in the Legislature. But two have been effectively killed as lawmakers opposed to the wide scope of ballot initiative have tried to build a united front.

Antonioni and Larkin proposed their bill in January and tweaked it to satisfy both bilingual backers and opponents: The legislation now would let the Department of Education declare schools or districts “underperforming” based solely on the test scores of limited-English students, a wide expansion of the department’s oversight. It also would require districts to involve parents in establishing bilingual-education programs.

In revising the bill, the pair is building support among legislators who want strong changes to bilingual education but are not ready to throw it out, as the ballot initiative proposes. In fact, some lawmakers, such as state Representative Marie P. St. Fleur, said they will not support the ballot question now that the Antonioni-Larkin bill is out.

“It addresses people who are on the fence,” said St. Fleur, Democrat of Dorchester. “I’d still like to have structured immersion for K-3, because that’s when kids learn language with the most fluency. But this is a bill we all can live with.”

The bill also drew qualified support from Leave No Child Behind, a group seeking to preserve bilingual education. Ultimately, Antonioni and Larkin said, they want to persuade voters that their bill, not the ballot question, best transforms bilingual education.

“We hope we’ll be influencing the debate about this,” said Antonioni, Democrat of Leominster. “Making public policy by ballot initiative, I think, is the wrong way to go.”

But backers of the ballot question, financed by Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz, say bilingual supporters have had their chance over the past three decades. Their ballot initiative would require districts to place students in intensive one-year English “immersion” classes before moving them to regular classrooms.

Districts are supposed to let students stay in bilingual classes for no more than three years, although many systems exceed that cap. About 45,000 Massachusetts students are classified as limited-English proficient.

Lincoln Tamayo, chairman of Unz’s campaign in Massachusetts, said the revised Antonioni-Larkin bill does “absolutely nothing.” He also said he doubts voters will see it as a viable choice over the Unz question.

Today, Republican lieutenant governor candidate James Rappaport is expected to announce his support for the Unz ballot initiative, Tamayo said.

Even with the Antonioni-Larkin bill, legislators remain divided. State Representative Mary S. Rogeness, a Republican of Longmeadow and an Unz supporter, said the Antonioni-Larkin effort is “heroic” but not enough. And bilingual-education supporters plan to offer amendments to the Antonioni-Larkin bill when it reaches the House floor.

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