BOSTON — Gov. William Weld has proposed legislation that would allow Quincy and other public school districts to revamp their costly bilingual education programs with intensive English-only instruction.
Weld, who has long questioned the value of bilingual lessons, says his plan would help children of immigrants master English more quickly without falling behind in other subjects.
If the Legislature agrees, Quincy would be able to try the plan the state Department of Education rejected last year: Teach English to students who speak Vietnamese, Arabic, Spanish or other languages, all in the same classroom.
“The flexibility that the bill is describing would be very important to us,” Quincy Superintendent of Schools Eugene Creedon said.
“Certainly, no one would argue that children who are struggling to learn English need intensive help,” Creedon said. “But we think it can be just as successful to give that help in English.”
There are nearly 800 Quincy students in programs to teach them English at a cost of more than
$ 1 million a year.
About 700 students are in English-as-a-second-language classes and 100 are in bilingual programs, where they are taught in their native tongue. These children speak Chinese and Vietnamese.
But the bilingual programs eat up almost half of the budget, at a cost of $ 473,000 a year.
Quincy officials say they could reduce that cost — and offer more effective instruction — with so-called “multilingual” classes. They also would save $ 15,000 a year they now pay for busing students from their neighborhood to schools with bilingual programs.
Randolph and Scituate are the only other South Shore school districts that have bilingual education programs. Randolph has a large Asian and Haitian minority; Scituate is home to many families from Cape Verde.
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.
The state Board of Education is
considering some changes to regulations governing bilingual programs. But Chairman John Silber has said the proposals don’t go far enough and supports the kinds of changes Weld wants.
Weld’s plan also calls for enforcing a strict three-year limit on the amount of time children can spend in bilingual classes before moving into regular classes.
He said yesterday that many students “languish” in bilingual programs for years, without learning English or math, geography, history and other subjects.
If the measure passes, school districts will answer to the state Department of Education for failing to move children out of bilingual classes within the three-year limit.
In addition to allowing school districts to design their own bilingual education programs or alternatives, the bill also would:
— Create a state standard for placing students in bilingual classes to screen out those whose English is good enough to progress in a regular classroom.
— Give parents notice when their child has been placed in a bilingual program. Many parents now are not notified and must petition to remove their children from these classes.
— Require bilingual teachers to be fluent in English. Now they only have to show that they are “communicative” in English.
Weld’s bill also drew praise from Quincy School Committee member Ronald Mariano, who also is a Democratic state representative.
Mariano has filed a bill that would repeal the state law that says when 20 students in a school district speak the same non-English language, the school must find a teacher who can instruct them in that language.
Mariano has called his bill “extreme,” hoping that the Legislature would pass a final version that would at least raise the threshold at which bilingual education is mandated. The governor’s bill would do just that. Bilingual education programs would be required when 18 non-English-speaking children in a single grade speak the same language.
Defenders of bilingual education had harsh words for Weld. They said his bill would make learning tougher for the 40,000 children now in bilingual programs.
Virginia Zanger, an educator Weld had appointed to a Bilingual Education Commission to study the program, said he had ignored the commission’s report.
The commission had concluded that bilingual programs needed to be strengthened. “The reason we have bilingual programs is because other programs did not work,” Zanger said.