Bilingual ed plan offered by legislators

The Swift administration and Democratic legislators are locking horns on how to fix Massachusetts’ 30-year-old bilingual education law, as legislators yesterday proposed giving school districts $12 million more to meet tightened requirements for thousands of limited-English students.

The legislation, unveiled by state Representative Peter J. Larkin and state Senator Robert A. Antonioni, cochairs of the Legislature’s Education Committee, hopes to head off a well-financed ballot initiative that would gut the state’s bilingual education law.

”We think this additional cost is well spent,” said Antonioni, a Leominster Democrat. ”Bilingual ed hasn’t gotten the attention that it properly deserves in the last decade or so.”

It would be foolhardy, said Antonioni and Larkin, a Pittsfield Democrat, to propose what their bill requires – certifying all bilingual teachers, offering at least five types of bilingual education programs, and submitting to increased state scrutiny – without paying for it. They suggested the $12 million could come from other pots of education money, but said that finding new cash is the goal.

”Can we do it? I don’t know,” Antonioni said. ”But our job as the Education Committee is to advocate for these programs.”

But Swift’s education adviser, James A. Peyser, said the administration is uncomfortable with the price tag, pointing out the state’s budget deficit and new money that local schools are getting.

”Certainly the governor would be concerned about any fiscal impact the bilingual reform bill might have,” said Peyser, who also chairs the state Board of Education. ”The bilingual education program is not fundamentally about money. I think it has more to do with the quality of instruction.”

Peyser said Swift plans to file her own legislation soon. It would add to a growing stack of bilingual education-related bills proposed to undercut a ballot initiative to revamp Massachusetts’ bilingual education law, the oldest in the nation. The ballot question, which voters passed in Arizona and California, would keep bilingual students in a one-year English immersion class before sending them to regular classes, with some exceptions. California entrepreneur Ron Unz is bankrolling the ballot question, and his supporters are gathering signatures.

In one sense, Swift and the Legislature aren’t too far apart.

Both sides favor cracking down on the time students spend in bilingual education classrooms – noting that schools routinely ignore the three-year cap – and agree that the Commonwealth’s 371 school systems should have greater freedom to choose their students’ bilingual programs. But while Swift would leave the job of monitoring the districts to an existing office, the legislators’ bill would create a new division in the state Department of Education.

The legislators’ bill would require districts to submit their bilingual education plans to the department, which would monitor students’ performance. In addition, students would have to leave bilingual education classes after three years. And while uncertified bilingual educators could teach under a waiver – which is the case now because of a shortage of qualified teachers – the bill would require teachers using a waiver to be proficient in written and oral English.

The Education Committee will hold hearings on the bill soon. Changes would be made to the state’s $3.2 billion formula for financing public schools to help districts pay for some of the new rules.

Currently, there are about 39,000 students in traditional bilingual education classrooms in Massachusetts, and 44,500 students classified as ”limited English proficient,” meaning they take regular classes with some support. Opponents of bilingual education say the students’ low scores and high dropout rates are reasons to revamp the law.

Anand Vaishnav can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].

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