Armed with a list of allies and a hefty bank account, Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz pledged yesterday to finance a ballot initiative to throw out the Massachusetts bilingual education law.

But Unz will have to get past Antonio Molina to do it.

Like many other parents of students in bilingual programs, Molina is vowing to fight Unz’s campaign to transform bilingual education in the state.

”It’s like saying, `Let’s take a first-grader and jump him to the fifth grade, so he can get out of the system quicker,”’ said Molina, a Roxbury resident and president of the Bilingual Master Parents Advisory Council of the Boston public schools. ”I think it’s absurd. All kids don’t learn at the same level.”

Some parents and teachers seemed incredulous at Unz’s proposal, which passed overwhelmingly in California and Arizona. If voters approve it here, it would replace the current system of bilingual education, which lets students take classes in their native language for up to three years while learning English, with a one-year, intense English immersion class. Students would then join regular classes, although parents could get a waiver.

”A year is not enough time for bilingual students to get ready,” said Lucia Hincapie, a Colombian native whose daughter is in bilingual classes at the Maurice J. Tobin School in Mission Hill.

James A. Peyser, chairman of the state Board of Education, favors reforming bilingual education, but he said he would prefer to see reform come from legislators, rather than a ballot initiative. Peyser also is education adviser to Acting Governor Jane M. Swift.

About 39,200 students in Massachusetts are in structured bilingual programs,
and another 44,800 are classified as ”limited English proficient,” meaning that they can take some classes in English. State figures show that students speak 69 languages, with Spanish being the most widespread.

Many supporters of bilingual education are fiercely protective, calling attempts to change the system anti-immigrant or uninformed. Millions of dollars are spent every year to hire bilingual teachers, create programs,
and buy supplies. Each year, Massachusetts gets about $10.1 million in US money, the sixth-highest amount in the nation.

But student achievement remains poor. On the 2000 MCAS test, limited English-speakers failed at double or triple the rates of regular students,
figures show. Such dismal scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests prompted Lawrence School Superintendent Wilfredo T.
Laboy to seek an overhaul of bilingual education in his city, where one out of four students is in a structured bilingual class.

”This conversation is not about how much money Unz can put behind it, but what kind of will do we have as educators to revisit a policy that has not given us results?” said Laboy, a native of Puerto Rico.

Others say the lagging performance of bilingual students is a reason to improve bilingual education, not to throw it out. Students who are well versed in their native language can do better in English later, some say.

”If you take that away from them and immerse them in English, something they don’t understand, it’s going to be survival English that they’re learning,” said Cecelia M. Alvarado, a senior associate at Wheelock College’s Institute for Leadership and Career Initiatives and a former bilingual teacher.

Superintendents in cities with a large percentage of bilingual students,
such as Lynn and Somerville, cautioned against a one-size-fits-all approach.

Somerville School Superintendent Albert F. Argenziano used an immersion method to teach students English when he ran US State Department-sponsored schools in Mexico. Younger students picked up the language quickly, but sometimes it took 18-24 months, he said.

”I’m a big supporter of the immersion process, but I doubt if you could do it for each and every student in one year,” he said. ”What’s the sense of mainstreaming them and having them fail? That serves no purpose.”


Anand Vaishnav can be reached by e-mail at vaishnav@globe.com.



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