The Board of Education voted unanimously yesterday to overhaul the system’s 26-year-old bilingual education program, giving parents of children who speak little English the right to move them into a range of new classes that emphasize instruction in English rather than in native languages.

The board voted 7-to-0 to approve Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy’s $75 million proposal, a response to years of criticism by political officials and educators that parents had little say over whether their children were placed in bilingual classes and that children languished for years without mastering English.

Currently, about half of the roughly 160,000 children in bilingual education take traditional bilingual classes, in which they learn subjects like mathematics and social studies in one of 12 foreign languages, and instruction in English is often confined to one period a day. The other half take programs in English as a second language, in which students are taught rudimentary English for several periods a day but may take regular subject classes in English.

Students who fail the English test are automatically placed in bilingual education classes and can be switched to English as a second language only at a parent’s insistence.

Under the new policy, parents of students who fail English competency tests will be asked to enroll their children in one of four programs: traditional bilingual education; English as a second language classes; a more intensive English as a second language program; or dual language, a program in which students may be taught in Spanish one day and English the next.

The board decided that the new policy should by fully in place by June. And it directed Mr. Levy to come up with a plan to pay for the program. In his most recent budget, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani set aside about $9 million to pay for after- school and weekend bilingual programs, but Mr. Levy will have to find the other $66 million elsewhere.

Although the board reversed the long-standing policy that assumed that students who spoke little English should be placed in bilingual classes, bilingual education advocates took heart in the fact that the new program protects the rights of children who still want to take the classes.

“This is a real compromise,” Ninfa Segarra, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s appointee to the board, said before the meeting. “What has polarized people in other parts of the country did not happen here.”

In the last three years, voters in California and Arizona overwhelmingly decided to effectively end bilingual education in those states, requiring all public schools to teach their classes in English and shortening transitional programs for immigrant students. Mayor Giuliani pushed for a similar policy here, but could not accomplish that because of the lingering force of a consent decree that resulted from a 1974 lawsuit brought by Hispanic advocacy groups.

Mr. Levy said he was “delighted” by the board’s vote, adding, “I think the board acted responsibly and in good judgment.” Under the terms of the policy that the board approved last night, Mr. Levy must now begin the difficult task of deciding how the changes will be made in schools and in school districts across the city.

The $75 million cost of the program represents a 44 percent increase in the $169 million the board now pays for bilingual and English as a second language education. The extra money will be needed to expand the dual-language program, to hire and train teachers and to create an intensive English-language program, among other things.

The new policy also makes it difficult for students to remain in bilingual education programs longer than three years. The policy requires administrators to request a parent’s consent before extending a student’s stay in the program beyond three years.

Students in the bilingual program will be offered classes over the summer and Saturdays to improve their language skills, although advocates wonder where the board, which is already facing a teacher shortage, will get teachers to work weekends. At the outset, the board will not be able to offer dual-language classes to everyone. Mr. Levy has proposed increasing the number of dual-language programs from 60 to 80.

A Board of Education study commissioned by Irving S. Hamer Jr., the Manhattan representative on the board who is chairman of the subcommittee on bilingual education, showed that just 45 percent of the students who entered the bilingual programs in middle school and 15 percent of those who entered in high school achieved sufficient English proficiency to leave those classes during their school career.

The new policy calls on Mr. Levy to come up with ways to particularly help students who enter the system after the sixth grade. Such students, for example, might be urged to take the intensive English as a second language classes, or enroll in Saturday classes or summer school.

The board also voted last night to change the test used to determine a students’ readiness to enter a mainstream class, saying that the current test virtually guarantees that 40 percent of students will linger in bilingual classes.

The city developed its bilingual education program in 1974 in response to a lawsuit by Aspira, a Hispanic civil rights group. The board signed a federal consent decree with Aspira that year, requiring that students who speak limited English be taught at least partly in their native languages. Because of that decree, the board and elected officials who represent Hispanic neighborhoods have been reluctant to change the program. Some critics have also argued that bilingual education has created a mammoth bureaucracy that is invested in perpetuating the program.

In fact, the board amendments to Mr. Levy’s policy plan were intended to protect the consent decree, said William C. Thompson, the board president, adding the language, “The chancellor is directed to inform parents that they are entitled to bilingual education and their right to opt out of bilingual education.”

Sandra Lerner, the Bronx representative on the board, and Dr. Hamer both expressed concern about a memorandum that Mr. Levy submitted to the board outlining his plan to implement the policy for parent choice. They said they thought that it violated the consent decree by ending automatic placement into bilingual education.

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