Forum backs bilingual ed

English-immersion proponents contend they were excluded

A panel of language, education, and civil rights specialists taking part in a forum at Harvard Law School yesterday labeled as destructive a proposition that would replace bilingual education in Massachusetts with a one-year English immersion effort.

The notion that children could learn English in one year is ”gossip,” said Delaine Eastin, the superintendent of public instruction in California, whose voters approved a similar initiative in 1998. ”It didn’t work in California,” Eastin said, ”and it won’t work here.”

What yesterday’s panel did not include was an opposing viewpoint.

”It seems strange to have a public forum on the initiative and not invite anybody connected with the initiative,” said Ron Unz, the California n who helped craft that state’s referendum, as well as the one on the November ballot in Massachusetts. ”No one on our side of the debate was contacted, let alone invited.”

About 150 people attended yesterday’s event, organized by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

Unz, a biotech entrepreneur, founded the English for the Children campaign to eliminate bilingual education across the country. Arizona passed such a measure in 2000.

Unz said he would have gladly participated yesterday.

”If they really believed that bilingual education worked, they should have invited me to the forum with all those professors and made me look foolish,” he said. ”But they didn’t, because all the facts are on my side.”

Panelists argued that immigrant children are a diverse population and the proposed plan is too limited to address their individual needs. The measure, they argued, would eliminate parental choice. While children struggled to learn English, they would fall behind in core subjects, such as math and science, that were also taught in English, panelists said.

”Bilingual students are passing the English MCAS test and if bilingual works, why change it?” said Ester de Jong, an assistant professor at the University of Florida and a teacher for 10 years in Framingham’s bilingual education program.

But Lincoln Tamayo, chairman of the Massachusetts initiative campaign, said he had proof that one-year immersion worked – himself. He left Cuba at age 5, speaking no English. ”I was speaking like a parrot by the middle of my kindergarten year,” Tamayo said. ”And I haven’t lost touch with my culture. I still speak Spanish with my parents.”

The former Chelsea principal said he decided to help abolish bilingual education after handing out too many diplomas to students who couldn’t speak English. A friend told him about yesterday’s forum. ”It wasn’t a debate, it was a pep rally,” he said.

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