Bilingual reform facing battle

BOSTON– A California multimillionaire and his Massachusetts allies yesterday kicked off a potentially polarizing ballot campaign to replace bilingual education with English-only instruction for immigrant students.

Ron Unz, 39, the software entrepreneur who financed the group that led successful drives to end traditional bilingual education in California and Arizona, was heckled by protesters as he spoke in front of the Statehouse.

?I believe that the parents and voters of Massachusetts should have the right to decide whether their children should be taught in English or not taught in English,? Mr. Unz said.

Mr. Unz, who earlier said he would not fund a ballot campaign here unless there was significant local support, said he is now prepared to give money to the effort, though he expects local contributions. Appearing with Mr. Unz were the in-state leaders of the ballot initiative and several foreign-language-speaking parents from Chelsea.

?The Legislature has been unwilling or unable to reform a law that has done serious damage to hundreds of thousands of children,? said Lincoln Tamaya, the Cuban-born principal of Chelsea High School, who is chairman of the campaign.

The Legislature’s leading spokesman for the dismantling the bilingual system, state Sen. Guy W. Glodis, D-Worcester, stayed away from the announcement, but said afterward he will throw his full support behind the campaign.

Today is the deadline for filing of intent to put an initiative question on the ballot for the Nov. 5, 2002 election.

The initiative’s backers yesterday turned in proposed ballot language that Mr. Unz had crafted with Mr. Glodis. Mr. Unz vowed to begin collecting the necessary 57,000 signatures once the question is approved by the attorney general.

Mr. Glodis had been trying to reach a last-minute compromise with Rep. Antonio F.D. Cabral, D-New Bedford, a key legislative advocate for bilingual education. Both sides said the talks fell apart late Monday night.

?The fact is that bilingual education is an embarrassment and is failing the kids it needs to help,? Mr. Glodis said in an interview. ?I am confident that when this goes on the ballot, it will receive an even higher percentage of votes than it did in California or Arizona.?

Defenders of the existing approach of teaching foreign-language-speaking students in their own tongues while developing their English skills vowed yesterday to fight the initiative campaign.

Placard-carrying protesters shouted at Mr. Unz to ?go back to California? and peppered several Hispanic bilingual opponents who appeared with Mr. Unz with hostile questions. Mingling in the crowd of about 100 at the press conference, one Unz opponent called the California activist a carpetbagger who is part of an anti-immigrant ?English Only? movement.

?Not only is Unz not an educator, he’s not a bilingual educator and he’s not a parent,? said Roger Rice of the Multicultural Education and Training Alliance. ?He got a few bucks and ran for governor (of California) and failed, and now it’s his whole mission in life to stamp out Spanish.?

A group of legislators, Boston city councilors, bilingual educators and Hispanic activists held their own session minutes after the event inside the Statehouse to blast Mr. Unz.

?We’re in this for the long haul. We don’t have a plane back to California,? said Rep. Jarrett T. Barrios, D-Cambridge, who has proposed tightening up bilingual education but criticizes the approach of Mr. Unz and Mr. Glodis as draconian. ?The problem with Ron Unz is he wants to get rid of one one-size-fits-all solution and replace it with another one-size-fits-all solution.?

Giovanna Negretti, executive director of OISTE, a statewide Hispanic advocacy group, said Mr. Unz’s local supporters do not represent the true feelings of immigrant communities. ?These individuals do not speak for the vast majority of Hispanic parents.?

The ballot question would install a one-year English ?immersion? program in place of the current three-year system. Students who can’t learn the language in one year could apply for waivers to continue in native language instruction. But such classes would be offered only if 20 students in a grade level were granted waivers.

Many bilingual educators want to preserve the current system, though some are open to changes, such as ?two-way? programs in which native English and foreign language speakers share classrooms.

?If students can learn English in one year, then why don’t we have foreign language programs be a one-year deal?? said Sergio Paez, director of bilingual education for the Leominster schools. ?It doesn’t make sense. I challenge Ron Unz or anyone else that you can learn a foreign language in one year.?

Amid the stir caused by Mr. Unz’ announcement, some legislators said yesterday that the initiative could prod the Legislature into major reform of the bilingual system for the first time in its 30-year history. But allies of Mr. Unz said they will be forging ahead regardless of what happens on Beacon Hill.

?They’ve talked about a compromise, but nothing is ever going to get done,? said Rosalie Pedalino Porter, an Italian immigrant and former Newton bilingual education director who is a co-chairman of the initiative campaign. ?I don’t think the Legislature cares.?

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