Opponents protest Weld bill to revise bilingual education

At a packed and raucous hearing at the State House yesterday, students, teachers, parents and union officials charged that a bill filed by Gov. Weld would lead to the demise of transitional bilingual education in Massachusetts.

But Weld administration officials insisted that the measure is only intended to revise the state’s 24-year-old bilingual education system to ensure that bilingual students attain the same high standard of achievement expected of all students under the 1993 Education Reform Act.

“If I thought for one moment this bill abolished bilingual education, I would not support it,” Education Commissioner Robert V. Antonucci told the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education. “This bill does not do that.”

Weld’s bill would limit bilingual education to students whose “skills in English are substantially less developed than their skills in their native language.”

The measure also would allow school systems to use different approaches in teaching bilingual students, would require at least one-third of the day to be taught in English if the traditional method is used and limit bilingual education for a student to three years unless the student’s parents agree to a longer period.

State Police estimated that more than 2,000 people crowded Gardner Auditorium or demonstrated on the sidewalk outside during the daylong hearing.

Education Secretary Piedad Robertson, who had urged the crowd, in both French and Spanish, to calm down, said later, “For many reasons, the whole issue has gotten caught in the social and cultural heritage of students. . . . They have been given a lot of false information.”

Rep. William Glodis (D-Worcester), who has filed bills to change the bilingual education system for seven years, called the existing system “a disservice to the people it is supposed to serve.”

Students “already know their native tongue. All I want them to do is learn English and in the transitional bilingual education programs in this state they are not learning English,” Glodis said.

Sen. Marc Pacheco (D-Taunton) testified, however, that bilingual education has worked, saying that before the state mandated the program in 1971, the dropout rate for bilingual students hovered between 70 and 80 percent. Now, he said, the bilingual student dropout rate is the same as that for other students.

Kathleen Kelley, president of the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers, said that the governor’s bill “does not improve bilingual education, but begins to dismantle it step by step.” Students and graduates of bilingual education programs held up their own experiences as evidence of the success of existing programs.

Ernst Guerrier, 26, said that he could not speak or understand English when his family emigrated from Haiti 10 years ago, but with five years of bilingual education, he is now an associate in a Boston law firm.

“If you take away the bilingual program, you will deny the successes of tommorrow. The bilingual program works, or I would not have been able to testify before you today,” Guerrier said.

In 1971, Massachusetts became the first state to require that transitional bilingual education be provided to students whose first language is not English so that they would not fall behind academically.

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