The future of bilingual education in Massachusetts promises to be a focus of attention on Beacon Hill this year, and an area lawmaker will play a key role in the debate.
State Senator Robert A. Antonioni, who is Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Education Committee, said he expects the panel to report out a bill in the next few weeks that would make significant changes to the law governing bilingual education.
Antonioni, a Leominster Democrat whose district includes Bolton, is working with the committee’s House chairman, Pittsfield Democrat Peter J. Larkin, to craft the legislation. The measure, which includes elements of several bills before the committee, could be seen as an alternative to a ballot question set to come before voters next fall, Antonioni said.
The ballot question seeks to require that all bilingual students enroll in immersion programs, in which all courses are taught in English, with some support in the student’s native language. Students could spend no more than a year in the program, after which they would be placed in mainstream classes.
Under current law, all bilingual students take part in transitional bilingual education, in which they take English but all other courses are taught in their native language. The law encourages but does not require a three-year limit on student participation in the program.
Antonioni said he opposes the ballot question as too severe, noting that some students, particularly older ones, may need more than a year of bilingual education before they are ready for mainstream classes. And he said the ballot question, like the current law, offers a “one size fits all approach” to bilingual education, “which isn’t necessarily helpful.”
Under the bill he and Larkin are developing, communities could choose one or more bilingual programs from a range of options.
Students could remain in the program no more than three years, although they would be eligible for English-as-a-second-language instruction after that.
The bill also would provide for annual testing of students. When test scores show a particular program to be failing, the program could be eliminated and the school district required to revise its bilingual plan. Bilingual plans would be mandatory for all districts.
Other features of the bill include increased state funding for bilingual education, a requirement that bilingual teachers be certified, and a mandate that bilingual programs be taught in accordance with state curricular frameworks.
“We’re giving communities a lot more choice,” Antonioni said. But, he said, “we’re also mandating accountability by putting the onus on them to demonstrate . . . that their program will work.”