New Bilingual Ed Scuffle

Key Board of Ed members battle over resolution wording

With a historic vote to overhaul bilingual education only days away, a last-minute skirmish has erupted among school officials scrambling to fine-tune the plan.

Confusion reigned yesterday after the Board of Education unveiled a carefully worded resolution tweaking a groundbreaking plan announced in December by Schools Chancellor Harold Levy.

The centerpiece of Levy’s plan ? up for a vote on Tuesday ? would end the automatic placement of students who do not speak English into bilingual classes and require their parents to choose between classes taught in their native language or English. It would also limit enrollment in the program to three years.

But two key board members were sharply divided over the meaning of their own words.

Irving Hamer, chairman of the board’s bilingual education committee, said the resolution would change Levy’s proposal to leave intact automatic placement of students in bilingual classes.

But board President William Thompson disagreed, saying all the measure would do is emphasize to parents that they are entitled to bilingual classes, if they want them.

The resolution is “absolutely consistent with what the chancellor had recommended,” Thompson said. “My interpretation is that parents will be making the choice.”

Not so, said Hamer, who insisted that an important decision like the education of immigrant children should be left to educators.

“Frankly, the system is not very sophisticated at working with parents and providing them with all the necessary information they need to make an informed decision,” said Hamer, the board’s Manhattan representative.

Levy and Mayor Giuliani’s bilingual ed task force have pushed for giving parents a choice between bilingual classes, taught mostly in a student’s native language; English-as-a-second language classes, taught mostly in English; or a new intensive ESL program.

The resolution directs the chancellor to “inform parents of their entitlement to bilingual education and their right to opt out of bilingual education services and choose among available programs.”

That wording, bilingual advocates said, seems to walk a fine line between two competing demands ? giving parents a choice and satisfying a 26-year-old court ruling that says children have a right to bilingual education.

The 1974 ruling that created bilingual ed in New York City ordered automatic placement of students who do not speak English in bilingual classes.

Getting rid of that provision violates the ruling, said Angelo Falcon of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, which argued the original lawsuit on behalf of the Latino advocacy group Aspira.

“I think there is genuine confusion on the Board of Ed. They genuinely don’t understand how it works,” Falcon said.

Randy Mastro, chairman of the mayoral task force, urged the board to clarify its position.

“Whatever the board does next Tuesday, it should unequivocally support parental choice,” he said.

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