Officials to review bilingual initiative

In a setback to anti-bilingual education crusader Ron Unz’s campaign, state officials are mulling whether to mention the Legislature’s recent bilingual education reforms on the same November ballot carrying Unz’s proposal in favor of English immersion.

The requirement that Secretary of State William F. Galvin and Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly review the controversial ballot question was buried in the closing paragraphs of the state law – signed last week by Acting Governor Jane Swift – that overhauled bilingual education in the Bay State.

The review requirement in the new law calls for Galvin and Reilly to determine whether the title of the ballot question – ”English language education in public schools” – and two one-sentence statements describing the effect of a ”yes” or ”no” vote should be updated ”to ensure a fair, accurate and neutral ballot question title and description.”

The law also asks Galvin to seek updated, 150-word statements about the ballot initiative from both sides, although Galvin noted it does not require him to use those new descriptions, which are printed in informational booklets mailed to voters.

While saying he wants to consult with Reilly before making a decision, Galvin yesterday blasted the little-noticed requirement, calling it an ”underhanded” tactic by bilingual education advocates attempting to twist a ballot question to influence voters.

”At this point, you don’t change the rules,” Galvin said. ”This has to be seen as a campaign. This was deliberate.”

A spokeswoman for Reilly said the attorney general will meet with Galvin before commenting.

If Galvin and Reilly agree to update the ballot initiative, it would boost the efforts of bilingual education advocates, who want to sell the Legislature’s tightening of bilingual education as an alternative to wiping out such classes. The ballot initiative is spearheaded by Unz, a Silicon Valley millionaire who has successfully overturned bilingual education laws in California and Arizona. If voters here approve the initiative, intensive English immersion classes would replace programs that now let students learn in their native tongues for up to three years, or sometimes longer.

State Representative Peter J. Larkin, who worked with the state Senate to add the review requirement in the bill, said he wanted the ballot question to better reflect the current bilingual-education landscape.

Starting this school year the new legislation, overseen by Larkin and state Senator Robert A. Antonioni, mandates that bilingual education teachers be certified and lets schools choose among different ways of educating the state’s 40,000 bilingual students. It also enforces a three-year cap on the amount of time children stay in bilingual courses and requires that school systems develop plans for students who struggle.

”I want the question before the voters to be accurate, and right now it’s not,” said Larkin, a Pittsfield Democrat and cochairman of the Legislature’s education committee. ”I don’t think the question being put before voters now accurately portrays the reality of the Legislature’s actions. This is nothing sneaky. This is a fastball straight down the middle of the plate.”

Those opposed to the ballot initiative have none of the millions that Unz could spend this fall, and instead have relied on other tactics: filing complaints with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance and the Supreme Judicial Court, and holding up the new bilingual-education law as a better solution.

Unz said yesterday that he will consult with his lawyers, but derided the attempt to update the ballot question, saying it wouldn’t change people’s minds. ”It seems they’re doing everything they can to avoid the issue of whether or not bilingual education works,” he said.

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