Glodis, Antonioni argue extent of changing bilingual education

BOSTON– State Sen. Guy W. Glodis, D-Worcester, vowed to press forward with a ballot initiative campaign to radically overhaul bilingual education, despite a compromise bill introduced yesterday by another Central Massachusetts senator.

That legislation, co-sponsored by Sen. Robert A. Antonioni, D-Leominster, and Rep. Peter J. Harkin, D-Pittsfield, attempts to head off the initiative campaign by making major changes in bilingual education.

The bill would require school districts to create bilingual education plans subject to state approval and limit pupils to two or three years in bilingual classes.

It also mandates that bilingual teachers be certified and that pupils be tested for English proficiency, while providing $12 million more for bilingual education.

“With all due respect to my colleague, Mr. Antonioni, this is nothing more than a watered-down rubber stamp of the status quo,” Mr. Glodis said of the new bill. “The timing is also interesting. Reform advocates have been pushing for reform for 18 years, and now, six months before a ballot referendum, the Legislature finally wakes up.”

In addition, under Mr. Antonioni’s bill, school districts would be encouraged to promote a variety of teaching approaches, including the one-year “immersion” technique the initiative would impose on the entire state.

Most bilingual pupils now are taught in “transitional” classrooms, where they stay for an average of three years, though some stay longer.

Yesterday’s Statehouse press conference to announce the filing of the bill drew not only the measure’s supporters, but advocates from the other side of the controversial issue.

“The current law is simply too inflexible,” said Mr. Antonioni, co-chairman with Mr. Larkin of the Legislature’s Education Committee. “Sometimes these students have remained in these programs for too long.”

Backers of traditional bilingual education, who have formed a group called “Leave No Children Behind,” said they cautiously support the new bill, though they called for more parental choice. Under the legislation, school superintendents would have the most say in choosing which bilingual approach to use in the district.

Bilingual advocates also noted that in California, where a similar ballot measure was approved by voters, no such reform legislation was on the books. The California campaign was funded by Ron Unz, the wealthy businessman who is also financing the Massachusetts initiative.

“This is a good step,” said Giovanna Negretti, executive director of Oiste, a statewide Hispanic group and a leader of Leave No Children Behind. “If the bill passes it would fix the problems in the system.

“It’s not a matter of someone from California fixing it when the Massachusetts Legislature has the capability,” she said.

On the other side of the issue, Lincoln Tamayo, chairman of English For the Children, which has led the drive to put the bilingual question on the November ballot, blasted the Antonioni-Larkin bill.

Mr. Tamayo, a Cuban immigrant who was formerly principal of Chelsea High School, maintained that children learn English fastest and best when they are immersed in the new language. Anything short of that is not real reform, he said.

“It is amazing how politicians get religion when they see real reform on the horizon,” Mr. Tamayo said. “This is too little, too late.”

State Rep. Karyn E. Polito, R-Shrewsbury, a member of the Education Committee, accompanied Mr. Antonioni and Mr. Larkin at the event.

Ms. Polito said she expects similar legislation to be filed soon by Gov. Jane M. Swift, a fellow Republican who, like Ms. Polito, opposes the ballot question.

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