SJC finds ballot wording on bilingual ed clear, concise

Question 2 foes lose challenge

Bilingual education supporters hoping to knock an English-immersion initiative off the November ballot lost another round yesterday in the Supreme Judicial Court.

The state’s highest court ruled that Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly’s office had ”clearly and concisely” summarized how Massachusetts public schools would be required to teach bilingual students if voters pass an initiative replacing bilingual programs with English immersion classes. A coalition of 12 bilingual education advocates filed a complaint in July arguing that Reilly’s summary, which will appear on the ballot and will be mailed to voters in booklets, is misleading.

The initiative states that bilingual students would take English immersion classes for a time ”not normally intended to exceed one school year.” That wording implies that schools have some leeway in the one-year requirement. But Reilly’s summary describes the classes as ”normally not lasting more than one year,” which gives the impression that the one-year period is inflexible, bilingual proponents said.

In California, the percentage of bilingual students annually reclassified as fluent in English has never topped 9 percent since voters passed a similar immersion initiative in 1998, which bilingual supporters cite as proof that immersion takes longer than a year.

Bilingual education supporters wanted the SJC to invalidate the entire initiative because Reilly’s summary was used to gather the signatures needed to place the question before voters. The justices rejected their arguments and ordered the state to put the initiative, Question 2, on the ballot.

”The Attorney General’s summary conveys the idea that the one-year time frame is not absolute,” the justices wrote.

Bilingual education proponents have already tried to quash the initiative through legal challenges and complaints filed with state election authorities. Two months ago, the SJC rejected arguments that the summary is misleading because it does not state that teachers can be sued if they don’t adhere to the initiative’s restrictions. Question 2 is spearheaded by Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz, who also led and helped fund the California initiative as well as a similar measure that passed in Arizona.

”We continue to believe that the attorney general’s summary of the Unz initiative is likely to mislead voters to believe that most students will complete the sheltered English immersion programs in only one year,” said Scott P. Lewis, an attorney from the Boston firm Palmer & Dodge who represented plaintiffs in the case.

The chairman of Unz’s Massachusetts campaign, Lincoln Tamayo, said the justices’ ruling showed that bilingual education supporters lack substantive arguments. ”They deal with legal machinations and demagoguery, and this is the way they’re going to try to win on their position. It is going to be an utter failure come Nov. 5,” Tamayo said.

In a related matter, a spokeswoman for Reilly said the attorney general and Secretary of State William F. Galvin have decided not to update the ballot for Question 2 to inform voters that the Legislature recently enacted a bill signed by Acting Governor Jane Swift mandating extensive changes to bilingual education. The new law required Reilly and Galvin to consider doing so.

Reilly spokeswoman Ann E. Donlan said officials decided that the best solution is for opponents and proponents to educate voters on their own.

Bilingual education proponents had pressed hard for updating the question; polls have suggested that voters support the new law, which requires stricter state oversight of bilingual education programs. Advocates aim to publicize the statute in order to persuade voters to defeat Question 2.

Tim Duncan, chairman of the Committee for Fairness to Children and Teachers, the leading opponents of Unz, said that despite the decision not to update the initiative’s language, the group will continue its aggressive campaign. ”Voters are already beginning to pay some attention, and the more they learn about the issue, the more they realize that it makes no sense in education policy,” Duncan said.

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