Opposing camps take shots at bilingual reform bill

State House education leaders yesterday offered a proposal to reform bilingual education, but the plan drew fire from both supporters of the current system and leaders of a ballot initiative proposing a California-style one-year immersion program.

Under the plan, districts would have the flexibility to choose the means of boosting the abilities of students with limited English proficiency. The proposal also calls for detailed district plans, annual testing, better trained teachers, $12 million a year in extra money and state oversight.

“We don’t believe one size fits all, nor do we believe the current system’s version of one-size-fits all is the answer either,” said state Rep. Peter Larkin (D-Pittsfield), co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Education.

“One-size-fits-all” is the label that’s been attached to the ballot initiative campaign by English for the Children, a group backed by California software millionaire Ronald Unz, who convinced voters in that state to scrap bilingual education.

Larkin said neither the state’s 31-year-old program nor the Unz measure contain requirements that students make academic progress. Both stress language acquisition over literacy.

“Some of the kids who come into bilingual education have virtually no literacy skills at all,” said Larkin, a co-sponsor of the measure with his committee co-chairman, state Sen. Robert Antonioni (D-Leominster).

The Larkin-Antonioni bill would require districts to craft detailed plans for their bilingual programs, and give them two years to bring students to English proficiency, with a third additional year available if needed.

Unz said the proposal’s chief flaw is that it gives districts the option of making no changes at all. He said he’ll press ahead with his ballot campaign, which last fall collected 80,000 signatures and appears almost certain to earn a spot on the ballot later this year.

“They admit the current system is a disaster and we agree with them there,” said Unz. “It’s unfortunate that they have not changed anything in 30 years, not a single aspect of the current law. Where were all these people for the last 30 years?”

In addition to yesterday’s bill, lawmakers are awaiting the reform plan acting Gov. Jane M. Swift promised in her State of the State speech this month.

State Rep. Antonio Cabral (D-New Bedford), who also plans to file a bill, said he and other supporters of transitional bilingual education will oppose the Larkin-Antonioni bill.

“The bilingual community feels strongly that, ultimately, it ought to be the parents’ choice, not the choice of the superintendent to choose the program,” Cabral said. “If you don’t have that, the districts never friendly to bilingual education will just go to Unz’s one-size-fits-all anyway.”

The Unz initiative question, as well as legislators’ bills, will likely receive public hearings at the State House in the spring, Larkin said.

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