House lawmakers approved the first major bilingual education reforms in a generation yesterday – drawing quick scorn from backers of a ballot question seeking even more radical change.

The compromise reform package, overwhelmingly passed on a 137-14 vote, would allow school districts to choose among a variety of methods for teaching children English, and would limit students to a maximum of three years of bilingual instruction.

After years of impasse and inaction, lawmakers are moving now to impose bilingual reforms under threat of an “English immersion” ballot question being spearheaded by California millionaire Ron Unz.

Backers of the ballot question dismissed the House action as irrelevant and said they would push forward with the referendum, which, if passed, would supplant anything the Legislature passes.

“It means nothing at all,” English for the Children Chairman Lincoln Tamayo said of the House action. “We are moving headlong to the ballot and this will become one of the most short-lived laws in the history of the Massachusetts Legislature.”

Besides setting time limits, the House’s bill imposes annual English proficiency tests on the 40,000 students in bilingual programs, and requires bilingual teachers to be certified.

“There is more than one approach that can be used to successfully teach limited-English-proficient students,” said House Education Committee Chairman Peter Larkin (D-Pittsfield), who co-wrote the bill.

The state’s current 30-year-old bilingual education law forces non-English speakers into native-language “transitional” programs, where critics say kids languish for years without learning English.

The Unz referendum would require non-English-speaking students to spend one year in classes taught only in English, before being moved into mainstream classes.

House members turned down repeated attempts to soften the requirements in the bill. Lawmakers also voted down Republican-led efforts to make the bill more closely resemble the Unz initiative.

The House bill now moves to the state Senate, where it is expected to pass with little fuss despite vocal objections from backers of more radical reforms.

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