Bilingual education may face changes

Weld wants emphasis on English

Gov. William Weld wants to overhaul bilingual education programs in the public schools in the hope of teaching students to speak English sooner.

Weld is considering filing legislation that would allow school districts to decide for themselves how they want to run classes for foreign-language-speaking students, said his education adviser, Michael Sentance.

One possibility would be for schools to replace bilingual classes with intensive English-only instruction, he said. That’s the type of program Quincy asked to create last year, but the Department of Education rejected the plan because it violated state law.

“Whether it’s immersion or it’s some other kind of pedagogy is not something that we feel is the responsibility of the state,” Sentance said yesterday. “We’d be trying to give the school districts that kind of latitude to address their needs.”

Weld proposed a similar bill two years ago but opposition from students, parents and teachers killed the measure in the Legislature.

State law requires a school district to provide bilingual classes when there are at least 20 students of limited English-speaking ability who speak the same native language.

In so-called “transitional” bilingual education, students begin learning their subjects in their native language and gradually learn English. About 5 percent of Massachusetts public school students, or 43,000, are enrolled in transitional bilingual education.

On the South Shore, Quincy, Randolph and Scituate offer such programs.

Other districts, with fewer than 20 students in a single language group, offer instruction in English as a second language, a different approach.

Sentance said the governor would decide whether to try again to change the law when he returns from a trade mission to Israel and Ireland.

He said Weld wants to evaluate the effect of proposed changes in the Department of Education’s rules governing bilingual programs before making a decision.

The state Board of Education is seeking public comment on both the rules and the law through April 4. The board is also holding public hearings across the state this month.

Education Commissioner Robert V. Antonucci has proposed allowing larger bilingual classes, eliminating a requirement for parent advisory councils and dropping recommendations that school systems have bilingual kindergarten, parent liaisons and guidance counselors.

Antonucci says these and other regulatory changes would give school districts the flexibility they need to run more effective and less costly programs.

But Board of Education Chairman John Silber has said that doesn’t go far enough. He wants the Legislature to make the kind of changes to the law that Weld may propose.

Many bilingual education advocates worry about all of the ideas on the table. They say Antonucci’s proposals would gut existing programs and leave students who are not proficient in English without the language services they need to learn. The changes supported by Weld and Silber would do even more harm, they say.

“Of course we’re worried,” said Tom Louie, of the Boston-based Massachusetts English Plus Coalition, an educational advocacy agency that promotes bilingual and multilingual education.

He said studies show that the transitional bilingual method is the best way to help students do better in all subjects.

Sentance said he disagrees.

“The information as to whether or not this is a successful strategy is lousy,” he said.

Far too often, students with limited English skills are excused from statewide standardized testing, he said.

State Rep. Ronald Mariano, D-Quincy, is also pushing for major changes in the law. He recently filed a bill that would eliminate the 20-student threshhold requiring a school district to set up a bilingual program.

“I went to an extreme because I want the debate to continue. . . . Probably what will happen is somewhere in the middle,” he said.

Mariano, who also is vice chairman of the Quincy School Committee, said he wants the city to be able to offer the kind of classes it proposed last year. Under the plan, elementary school children who speak Vietnamese, Spanish or other languages would receive intensive lessons in English rather than separate instruction in their native languages.

Opinion asked on language law

The state Department of Education is requesting public comment on the transitional bilingual education law and regulations.

The Board of Education will hold four public hearings this month on the proposed changes. They are scheduled for Tuesday at Durfee High School in Fall River, Thursday at West Roxbury High School, March 20 at the Rebecca Johnson School in Springfield and March 26 at the Assabet Valley Vocational-Technical High School in Marlboro.

The hearings will be from 4 to 7 p.m.

Copies of the bilingual education law, regulations and proposed changes are available on the Internet at or by calling the Department of Education at (617) 388-3300, Ext. 461.

Written comments should be sent to the Department of Education, Attention: TBE Regulation Review, 350 Main St., Malden, MA 02148.

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