BOSTON– As a ballot initiative campaign to scrap bilingual education gains momentum, the fight over whether pupils should learn in English or their native language intensified yesterday at an emotional hearing at the Statehouse.
"This is a disaster in education," state Sen. Guy W. Glodis, D-Worcester, a leading supporter of the ballot initiative, told the Legislature’s Education Committee in an auditorium crowded with schoolchildren and bilingual education supporters.
"We need to put our energy, resources and time into fixing a system that has failed," he said.
The referendum, which is backed by Mr. Glodis and Ron Unz, the California businessman who is bankrolling the campaign, will appear on the November ballot.
Backers say polls show wide popular support for the measure, which has polarized the educational community. It would replace the current gradual approach with one year of English immersion and some help in pupils’ own language.
Mr. Glodis and other critics charge that bilingual education has held immigrant pupils back, which the critics contend is shown by low test scores.
But bilingual education supporters say poverty and other factors are more to blame, maintaining that teaching children in their own tongues is the most supportive way to bring them into the mainstream.
Bilingual supporters yesterday blasted opponents of the current system as "anti-immigrant." They argued that parents should be able to choose what kind of program their children attend and not be forced into English-only classes.
"We’re here today, in my opinion, because of a proposal that has been put forth with evident prejudice, bigotry and complete misunderstanding of what bilingual education has done here in Massachusetts," said Sen. Marc R. Pacheco, D-Taunton.
The hearing was to consider three pieces of legislation to change the system, all of which are reactions to the more radical ballot initiative.
Two of the measures seek to head off the ballot measure with significant reform.
Gov. Jane M. Swift’s bill limits pupils to two years in bilingual classes. The measure, co-sponsored by Sen. Robert A. Antonioni, D-Leominster, and Rep. Peter Larkin, D-Pittsfield, co-chairmen of the Education Committee, sets a three-year cap.
Both bills would set higher standards for becoming a bilingual teacher, give school districts leeway in how to teach immigrant pupils and provide greater state monitoring of programs.
The third bill, co-sponsored by Mr. Pacheco and Rep. Antonio F.D. Cabral, D-New Bedford, keeps programs about as they are.
"Bilingual education is a major feature in the educational experience of language minority students," said James A. Peyser, chairman of the state Board of Education, testifying in support of the governor’s proposal. "And while it may not have caused the achievement gap all by itself, it has most certainly not been effective in closing it."
Mr. Unz told the committee that test scores for immigrant children in California have improved dramatically since a similar referendum was passed there three years ago.
"Once you get rid of bilingual education, the test scores of children in Massachusetts will rise as rapidly as they did in California," Mr. Unz said.
But there has been much controversy over the significance of the California test scores. Committee members grilled Mr. Unz about the reliability of the statistics he quoted.
One lawmaker suggested that the lowering of class sizes had more to do with the improvement in California. Another said dropout rates may have increased since the introduction of English immersion.
Outside the auditorium, passions ran high between the two sides.
Speaking to reporters, Mr. Unz was heckled persistently by bilingual supporters wearing badges with a line through his last name.
Bilingual activists are vowing to wage a war in the media against Mr. Unz’s campaign.
"It’s about grass-roots organizing. It’s about raising money so we can root out some of the lies put out by Mr. Unz and his cronies," said Roger Rice, a leader of the group Leave No Child Behind. He referred to Mr. Unz as "a wacko millionaire from California."
Boston University President John R. Silber, a high-profile backer of the initiative drive, got into a testy exchange with Mr. Cabral.
Mr. Cabral pressed Mr. Silber about why the Chelsea schools, which are run by BU under contract, have not done better in improving the English proficiency of immigrant pupils.
Interrupting Mr. Silber, the legislator told him: "You don’t know what you’re talking about."
Mr. Silber, who snapped at Mr. Cabral several times to "shut up," said Massachusetts’ 30 years of experience with bilingual education has been unsuccessful.
"The only thing that is going to change it is ballot reform," he said.