BOSTON—Acting Gov. Jane Swift signed legislation Tuesday making sweeping changes to the state’s 30-year-old bilingual education law, but the battle over teaching English to children is just heating up.
Supporters of a ballot question designed to dismantle bilingual education and replace it with a one-year, English immersion program said they won’t be swayed by the new law.
The law doesn’t go far enough and would still allow schools to use outdated methods that don’t work, according to Lincoln Tamayo, a former Chelsea High School principal who is leading the ballot campaign. “I assure you by November, when we vote on this, the electorate will know this is just another gimmick masked as reform,” Tamayo said.
Lawmakers who hammered out the new law say it is true reform. The law would allow school districts to choose from a range of bilingual education programs, including the ballot question’s one-year English immersion program.
The biggest difference is that the new law gives school committees, teachers and principals greater choice, while the ballot question mandates a single solution, lawmakers said.
“That’s an intellectual arrogance of its own sort,” said Rep. Peter Larkin, D-Pittsfield, House chairman of the Education Committee. “Why should we repeat the mistakes of the past and impose another one-size-fits-all program?”
The new law allows schools to choose from six methods of teaching English to children not fluent in the language. In districts with more than 50 children in the same language groups, at least two programs must be offered.
The law is also designed to hold schools accountable, requiring annual assessments of students’ progress and allowing the Department of Education to step in if a school district is deemed “underperforming.”
The law also strengthens qualifications for bilingual education teachers and encourage parent participation.
The question is the brainchild of California software entrepreneur Ron Unz, who bankrolled similar, successful initiatives in California and Arizona.
“The Unz initiative is a bumper sticker solution to an issue that is a lot more complicated,” Larkin said.
Opponents of the question face a daunting challenge convincing voters to reject the initiative. Advocates say they hope to raise enough money to take buy television and radio ads.
They say voters will oppose the question when they realize it will allow teachers to be sued.
“When people see teachers, superintendents – the people who make these decisions on a day to day basis – don’t give Unz any credibility, they are going to see the truth,” said Tim Duncan, chairman of Committee for Fairness to Children and Teachers.
Supporters said they don’t need to advertise.
“I think the average person knows the absurdity of telling a 6-year-old Spanish speaking student to wait one to three years before being mainstreamed,” Tamayo said.
If the question wins, lawmakers must decide whether to overturn it.
Opponents are asking the state’s highest court to block the question from the ballot, claiming a summary accompanying the question is misleading.
The Supreme Judicial Court rejected another challenge by opponents that said a one-sentence summary was misleading because it did not mention that the question would allow teachers to be sued.
In a book sent to voters by election officials, the question is identified as “English Language Education in Public Schools.”