Ballot challenge could upend new bilingual ed law

A major overhaul of the state’s bilingual education regulations was signed into law yesterday by acting Gov. Jane M. Swift, but a November referendum that would mandate that all children learn English at a faster pace could ultimately trump the new law.

Supporters of the initiative petition, which would require most non-English speakers to spend one year in an immersion classroom and then shift to classes taught in English, dismissed the measure.

“For a 5-year-old or 6-year-old, two months is two months too many to be placed in a native language class,” said Lincoln Tamayo, who is leading the ballot campaign backed by California millionaire Ron Unz.

“Politicians have little faith in a young child, regardless of immigrant status, to learn quickly and learn well.”

Unz and Tamayo argue the new law doesn’t go far enough and would still allow schools to keep transitional bilingual education, the heavily criticized method the state mandated for 30 years.

“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, said choice for parents and schools is the cornerstone of the reform plan.

Certification guidelines for bilingual teachers are supposed to be toughened under the new law, and students are going to be assessed on an annual basis to chart progress. The new law requires students make the transition to English language instruction in two years.

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, transitional bilingual and two-way bilingual, where English and Spanish learners share the same classrooms.

The biggest change is that the new law gives school committees, teachers and principals greater choice, while the ballot question would mandate 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?”

Unz has ushered his English immersion ballot measure through two states, winning by wide margins in California and Arizona.

He’s also in the process of getting the measure on the ballot in Colorado.

Herald wire services contributed to this report.

Comments are closed.