A defeat for Gov. Weld’s bilingual education proposal was a victory for Massachusetts schoolchildren. The Weld administration would do well to apply the same zeal in enforcing the existing law as it has in its efforts to dismantle it.

The governor’s plan, which House Republicans tried to insert in the state budget Tuesday night, would have jeopardized opportunities for bilingual students. The governor’s initiative, which could still be adopted as separate legislation, would limit bilingual education to students whose English skills are “substantially less developed than their native-language skills.” However, the law was not designed simply to help students master English speaking skills but to ensure that they progress academically by learning subjects in their native language while getting the hang of English.

The Weld administration would have us believe that the state’s 1971 bilingual education law, the first of its kind in the nation, has been a dismal failure. The facts do not bear this out. Before the state mandated the program, the dropout rate among bilingual students was 70 to 80 percent.
Now the bilingual student dropout rate is on a par with that of native-speaking students.

Weld’s attack on existing bilingual programs is fueling a misimpression that the majority of students languish in these classes for years. In reality,
the average tenure in bilingual programs is three years. There is still room for improvement. Far too many bilingual courses lack rigor; native-language textbooks are often substandard. State and local officials must develop mechanisms for monitoring compliance with the existing law and ensuring program quality.

But it seems that cutting costs by reducing bilingual enrollment is the administration’s true aim. Over the last 12 years, while the state’s overall public school population has decreased by 9 percent, the number of students whose first language is not English has nearly doubled.

In most other sectors of society, bilingualism is an asset. The House was right to resist attempts to cast it as a blight on public education.

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