Two months before Massachusetts voters decide whether to dismantle bilingual education, groups on both sides of the issue have begun girding for the final push in what is expected to be an acrimonious battle for support.
Trailing in the polls, the pro-bilingual Committee for Fairness to Children and Teachers has embarked on an intensive grass-roots effort, meeting with supporters to mobilize volunteers, launching a Web site and opening phone banks for a massive effort to reach thousands of voters.
The antibilingual English for the Children Campaign – which sponsored the ballot question and, according to most polls, holds a substantial lead – is planning a more low-key approach of gentle persuasion, speaking to political groups, Rotary clubs, and editorial boards.
Some state lawmakers, meanwhile, are openly discussing a possible repeal of the ballot initiative if voters pass it.
”I would be prepared to do what is needed to be done to see that it did not go into effect,” said state Representative Alice K. Wolf, a Cambridge Democrat.
The state’s 31-year-old bilingual law, the oldest in the nation, lets students take classes in their native tongues and ease into English over a period of three years, although some take longer. Although proponents say that method is more effective at teaching strong English skills, opponents contend that the fastest route to English fluency is to immerse children in it.
In advance of the ballot question, the state Legislature passed a bill signed by Acting Governor Jane Swift this month meant to appease voters leaning toward abolishing the current system. The law reinforced the three-year cap on bilingual classes, imposed annual testing, and required certification of bilingual teachers.
A ”no” vote on Question 2 would keep that system; a ”yes” vote would mandate that bilingual students stay in English immersion programs for a year before moving to regular classes.
An opponent of the ballot initiative, the Committee for Fairness to Children and Teachers, or FACT, plans a back-to-school blitz of demonstrations as well as appearances near the polls during the Sept. 17 primary. A major theme will be publicizing the more stringent parts of the question, such as letting teachers be sued for speaking in students’ native language. They also want to stress the importance of letting parents and schools choose the bilingual programs that best fit their children – which the new law allows.
In addition, an Amherst group, the Multilingual Action Coalition, is rallying support in Western Massachusetts.
Bilingual proponents are also trying to force the state to print information about the new law on the ballot question.
”We think voters have to know about the new law and what’s in it,” said Roger Rice, a member of FACT and executive director of Somerville-based Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy. ”If voters are looking for reform, they have it now. And it’s a different kind of reform than wiping out everything.”
Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley millionaire who sponsored the initiative after successfully promoting similar questions in California and Arizona, said in an interview that his campaign will be more ”reactive” to that of the other side. He said his group will match what bilingual proponents spend. Neither he nor the chairman of the English for the Children campaign, Lincoln Tamayo, ruled out pricey television and radio advertisements.
Tamayo also noted that the Republican candidates for governor and lieutenant governor support the Unz initiative.
”There’s more than enough of a voice here in Massachusetts to be able to deliver the message,” said Tamayo, former principal of Chelsea High School. ”Frankly, it doesn’t matter if Ron comes from California or from Massachusetts or from Mars, the message is still the same. The central issue is how immigrant children are educated in the public schools of Massachusetts.”
Tamayo and his supporters are shying away from referring to Question 2 as the ”Unz initiative,” saying it is bigger than the California entrepreneur, but Rice said his campaign will trumpet Unz’s name and his ”California money” at every turn.
On Beacon Hill, state Representative Peter J. Larkin, cochair of the Legislature’s education committee, said he is leery of amending or repealing the Unz initiative if voters pass it. Lawmakers have precedent for such a move: This year, they froze a voter-approved income tax rollback and a tax deduction for charity donations, citing budget constraints. That happened even though the very legislators who voted for those measures pushed their colleagues to support the voter-passed Clean Elections question, pointing to the will of the electorate.
”It’s always debatable,” said state Representative Kay Khan, a Newton Democrat.