Area legislators back voters on English immersion

Several proposals are being pushed in an effort to reshape the law, which eliminated bilingual education.

Southeastern Massachusetts legislators say they are taking their cues from voters who voted to eliminate bilingual education in a Nov. 5 ballot question.

Under the new law, bilingual education would be replaced with English immersion programs, which allow students to study English for one year before being moved into mainstream classes.

In recent weeks, some state lawmakers have developed bills to postpone or change the reform. Among the proposals is one that would allow individual districts to opt out of immersion programs. Another would put off implementing the law, and a third proposal would gut the initiative, allowing bilingual education programs to continue. Since the elections a month ago, area legislators say they have considered how they will represent their constituents’ interests on Beacon Hill. Some say they hope to see the proposal enacted as it was written, while others say they are concerned about the new law’s “one-size-fits-all” approach.

“My take on it is to abide by the will of the people, and I think it was overwhelmingly voted for by the people, not only in my area, but certainly across the commonwealth,” said Rep. Elizabeth A. Poirier, R-North Attleboro.

Sen. JoAnn Sprague, R-Walpole, who represents Rehoboth and Seekonk, also says she will work to implement the initiative. “I’ve been out in my district a lot, talking with teachers, and many of the systems in my district are already doing English immersion, because they cannot afford to hire bilingual [education] teachers,” she said.

Sprague said she did not think it would be difficult for the towns in her district to implement the new law, because they were already using English immersion.

Several others said they are taking a “wait-and-see” attitude. Sen. Cheryl A. Jacques, D-Needham, who represents Attleboro and North Attleboro, said she is in a “listening mode.”

“I’m asking my local community basically two questions: what will they need to do to implement this, and what will the price tag be,” she said.

“I’m going to do the best I can to support the will of the voters, as long as it doesn’t have a dire impact on public education and my local community,” Jacques said.

The senator said she was especially worried about the program’s potential costs. If the initiative, which may have a high price tag, is not funded by the state, that would raise concerns for local communities, she said. “I don’t want to impose an unfunded mandate on our cities and towns, that they don’t have the resources to implement,” Jacques said.

In Fall River, which has one of the area’s largest populations of bilingual students, local lawmakers expressed concerns about the ballot question.

Rep. Michael J. Rodrigues, D-Fall River, said he thought voters acted prematurely. A law was passed earlier in the year to reform bilingual education, and it had not been fully implemented when the ballot question went to voters last month.

“I’m a little bit disappointed that the new law that was passed this year was not given a chance to work,” Rodrigues said. That law would not have implemented a “one-size-fits-all” approach as the November referendum does, Rodrigues said.

But he pointed out that that the referendum to eliminate bilingual education passed overwhelmingly, even passing in Fall River and New Bedford, two cities with large bilingual programs.

“I believe that [Governor-elect Mitt Romney] had indicated that he wanted to make a couple of minor changes to remove some of the punitive sections of the bill that will allow teachers to be sued, so we’ll see what he has in mind for that,” Rodriguezs said.

Rep. Robert Correia, D-Fall River, said he also plans to wait to see how the initiative will be implemented. Like Rodrigues, Correia said he was also concerned with the one-size-fits-all approach. Correia said he did not think the issue should have been compacted into a ballot referendum.

Sen. Joan Menard, D-Somerset, who also represents Fall River, Swansea and Westport, said the Department of Education will bear the ultimate responsibility for implementing English immersion.

“We’re just going to have to look at different parts of the law, and implement it the best we can, always taking into consideration the best needs of each child,” she said.

“We want to make sure, obviously, that the students learn English as quickly as possible, but we don’t want to be in a situation where they’re sitting there, and they don’t really know what’s going on, because they haven’t had time to learn the language,” said Menard, a former teacher.

Ultimately, the test of the referendum will come this winter as debate on the issue begins on Beacon Hill.

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