Bilingual education plan draws fire

Swift's compromise prompting criticism from both sides

Acting Governor Jane Swift’s attempt to broker a compromise on reforming the state’s 30-year-old bilingual education law is drawing fire from both sides of the contentious debate.

”She’s ducking the issue,” said California businessman Ron Unz, who said yesterday he will continue to push a November 2002 ballot initiative to dismantle the law and replace it with a one-year English immersion program.

Meanwhile, educator Nydia Mendez, who supports current bilingual education programs, said Swift’s proposal to force students out of bilingual education after two years won’t cut it in the classroom.

”Once again, we are responding to the politics of bilingual education rather than to the educational aspects of what it takes to educate a student for whom English is not a first language,” said Mendez, director of the office of bilingual education and language services for the Boston Public Schools.

”There is a body of research that says it takes longer than one year, two years, even three for students in well-designed programs to acquire the competency … I’m personally concerned that this is again about `let’s compromise.”’

The state’s bilingual education law, the oldest such law in the nation, requires school districts with 20 or more children who have a limited understanding of English and speak the same language to have a transitional bilingual program for up to three years.

In addition to cutting that period to two years, Swift’s proposal would give districts more flexibility to design their own bilingual education programs.

Critics of the acting governor’s plan fear it would allow districts to stick with the status quo.

”This is yet another education gimmick from the governor,” said Lincoln Tamayo, chairman of the local English for the Children of Massachusetts campaign, which is pushing the November 2002 ballot initiative. ”She’s trying to play both sides of the fence.”

Tamayo, a former principal in Chelsea schools, is among those recruited by Unz, who has led successful campaigns in California and Arizona to overhaul bilingual education in those states.

The Massachusetts ballot question has been submitted to the Legislature, which has until April 30 to act on the measure. If no action is taken, the petitioners will have to compile close to 10,000 new signatures.

Educators like Mendez defend current bilingual education programs, saying schools should be allowed to determine how much time each student needs in bilingual education before being mainstreamed.

In Boston, some students are moving within the fist year, others within the second,” she said. But ”there is a segment of the population that requires a longer stay. So once again let’s make sure what we are doing is educationally sound.”

At least one superintendent, though, praised Swift’s plan to cut down the time students spend in bilingual education without resorting to an English immersion effort.

”Two to two-and-a-half years should be the goal,” said Lawrence Superintendent Wilfredo T. Laboy. ”But, at the same time, we should assess children to make sure they have support when they move on.”

The flexibility in Swift’s proposal is the key, said Laboy, whose district has the third largest percentage of students whose native language is not English. ”There is this whole attitude that one shoe fits all,” he said. ”It has to be local districts making those decisions in consultation with the state.”

Regardless, Laboy said, the time is ripe for changes to bilingual education efforts in the state. ”We cannot do more of the same,” he said.

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