Spotlight is on state's bilingual education law

The Silicon Valley millionaire who bankrolled ballot initiatives that scrapped bilingual education in California and Arizona recently launched a drive in Colorado – but he has not lost interest in the Commonwealth.

“The fact that I’m committed to helping the people in Colorado with their effort obviously puts a strain on the time I can spend in Massachusetts,”
said Ron K. Unz, who has become one of the most prominent advocates of an
“English immersion” approach. “On the other hand, the fact that it’s going so well in Colorado makes it more likely that we’d do it in Massachusetts.”

Unz says he’s been pleasantly surprised by the favorable press coverage of his two-week-old Colorado effort, and by polls in that state that show strong support for English immersion, which funnels non-native English speakers into regular classes after a one-year transition period.

The prospect of an Unz-funded initiative in the Commonwealth has spurred a legislative effort to overhaul the state’s 30-year-old bilingual law – the nation’s first – for the first time.

Democratic state Representatives Jarrett Barrios of Cambridge and Antonio Cabral of New Bedford tout their bill as a “third way” between the 30-year-old method of bilingual education practiced in most of Massachusetts and Unz’s approach.

Under Massachusetts law, any district with 20 or more children who have a limited grasp of English and speak the same language must provide a transitional bilingual program for up to three years. Students learn English, but they learn math, science, and other subjects in their native tongue until their English improves.

The Cabral/Barrios measure would preserve that system, if parents in a district want it, but offer other options: “two-way” bilingual education, in which native and non-native English speakers are taught both languages in the same classroom; “structured immersion,” in which students learn in English but spend at least 30 percent of the school day practicing their native tongue; and a “modified bilingual/world language program,” in which the entire school “embraces the language and culture of the language-minority group.”

The Cabral/Barrios bill also would stiffen teaching and testing standards.
Supporters of the proposal see it as real reform that should fend off a ballot initiative.

“The dynamics here in Massachusetts are very different than they are in Colorado or in California, for that matter,” Cabral said.

“By and large, bilingual education has worked fairly well in Massachusetts.
Is it perfect? It is not. Does it need some comprehensive reform at this point? It does. And it’s ongoing.”

But Unz and other critics say the Cabral/Barrios bill amounts to more of the same: a system that hurts the children it is supposed to help by coddling them.

Unz says he believes there is widespread support in Massachusetts for scrapping bilingual education. He says state figures have told him privately that they agree that bilingual education is a failure. But Unz says he won’t launch a movement until those leaders – particularly Hispanic ones – are ready to go public with their views.

Unz says they’ll have to speak up within the next couple of months to have a shot at getting an initiative on the 2002 ballot.

“Based on our polling, I think something like this would win overwhelmingly as long as it’s done the right way,” Unz said of the Massachusetts prospects.

Scott S. Greenberger can be reached by e-mail at

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