We’re a long way from Election Day. But one potentially hot question — whether to drastically revamp the state’s bilingual education program — is already in circulation. Proposition 227, a question tentatively slated for the November ballot, would replace the current system of English lessons along with courses taught in students’ native languages with a year of intensive immersion in English.
The measure, whose official title is “English For Our Children,” is being bankrolled primarily by California software millionaire Ron Unz, which has prompted a third moniker: the “Unz initiative.” In 1998, Unz spent millions to push similar initiatives in California and Arizona, both of which passed in landslide fashion. This year, along with Massachusetts, Unz is funding drives in Texas and New York.
If the Legislature does not act on the proposal by April 30, the initiative’s backers need 10,000 more signatures to ensure its placement on the ballot. Acting Gov. Jane Swift recently proposed moderate reforms to the system. Currently, the law provides a three-year bilingual transition period. Swift’s plan would cut that period to two years and give districts increased flexibility to design their own bilingual programs. Other legislators, such as state Rep. Antonio Cabral (D-New Bedford) have introduced similar bills.
Locally, state Rep. Mary Rogeness (R-Longmeadow) is backing the Unz initiative. Rogeness has introduced several unsuccessful bilingual education reform bills in the past. “English should be the language of the schools,” Rogeness told the Advocate. “We have had 30 years of [the current system]. MCAS has showed it doesn’t work.” Recent MCAS test results showed some of the lowest scores came from communities with large numbers of bilingual students.
Backers of the Unz initiative also criticize the current bilingual education system as a sort of modern-day segregation, saying it holds back non-native kids from quickly assimilating into the mainstream.
But bilingual educators counter that immersion programs like California’s haven’t worked as well as Unz’s supporters say, and that the initiative’s real goal is to strip immigrants of their native cultures.
Meanwhile, concerned bilingual teachers, students and parents are trying to build political support for the current system. On Jan. 30 at the Jackson Street School in Northampton, a series of speakers will talk about the merits of bilingual education.
One of the event’s organizers, Easthampton resident Neil Brick, has taught bilingual education for about 7 years in Holyoke public schools. Brick said the existing system works best. “It makes sure the person’s first language is strong, which then makes it easier for them to learn a second language. These are young kids. They aren’t strong in their native language yet.”
Kim Gerould, a bilingual instructor at the Jackson Street School, agrees with Brick. “People can learn [conversational] language in a year or two. But formal language takes a much longer time.”
The two sides offer contradictory evidence about immersion’s effectiveness. Standardized test scores from 1998 and 2000 cited on Unz’s website, www.onenation.org, show that California English learners in grades 2 through 6 raised their mean percentile scores by 35 percent in reading, 43 percent in mathematics and 32 percent in language.
But Phil Glass, spokesman for the California Teacher’s Association, said Unz and his supporters are taking credit for gains made under a brand-new testing system put in place in 1998. “Teachers have learned to teach to that test. That’s why you’ve got these improved scores,” Glass told the Advocate.
Also, many California educators have said it is too soon to gauge immersion’s effectiveness, given that the law did not actually go into effect until the 1999-2000 school year.
Brick said he finds the Massachusetts ballot initiative’s very existence ludicrous: “Instead of looking at the research, instead of consulting with experts, people are going to have a vote on it? Would the public be looking at the dentist and telling him how to drill?”
Gerould sees the dispute over bilingual education as racially driven. “We wouldn’t be having this debate if we were talking about affluent white kids learning a second language. The Massachusetts high school curriculum says high school kids should be fluent in another language. … There’s a fear that ‘they’re going to take us over.’ But there’s no history of that [happening],” Gerould said.
The Unz initiative definitely has its fans in Massachusetts. The initial petition drive garnered more than 100,000 signatures, according to Unz’s camp. And a recent poll by the Cambridge-based polling firm Mass Insight showed that more than 60 percent of adults polled favored the initiative in some form.
Then there’s that vague-but-pleasant-sounding nickname. “It’s called ‘English for the Children.’ People hear that, and they might say, ‘Well, that sounds good,’ and vote for it,” laments Gerould.
It’s unclear how vigorously bilingual educators will be able to fight back. Gerould said local teachers are just starting to get organized. A spokesperson for the Massachusetts Teachers Association said the union was officially against the Unz initiative, but that no formal plan or funding to fight it has been assembled. Talks about what those might compose, she said, will commence in the coming weeks.
Chris Kanaracus can be reached at [email protected]