Parents, teachers hit bill to trim bilingual education

BOSTON — They said it in Spanish, Creole and English: Gov. William Weld’s plans to overhaul bilingual education will handicap the state’s immigrant children.

Bilingual education teachers and parents, some with translators, told the Legislature’s Education Committee yesterday that the governor’s bill, which would limit the amount of time students can spend in bilingual programs, is educationally unsound.

And the committee chairmen, Sen. Robert Antonioni, D-Leominster, and Rep. Harold Lane, D-Holden, made it clear that they will not let the measure go to the House and Senate with their approval.

Weld and state Board of Education Chairman John Silber say the state’s bilingual education program often retards the acquisition of English, and that children will be better served if they are moved into regular classes faster.

“For generations this country used total immersion with millions of immigrants who learned English quickly and well,” Silber told the committee.

Weld’s bill would limit students’ time in bilingual classes to three years. Teachers in the program would have to prove they are fluent in English, not just “communicative,” as currently required.

Some opponents of the measure heckled Silber when he described the speed with which his own children learned German when he was on a Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Hamburg in 1959 and 1960.

Bernard Farina, president of the Haitian Parents Association of Boston, said he understands why some at the hearing would be offended by Silber’s comments.

“Every child is different. His children probably had books in their hands since they were 6 months old. What about the children of immigrant parents who can’t even read a newspaper?” he said.

Oreste Joseph of Randolph, co-chairman of the Massachusetts Coalition of Haitian parents, said the governor is setting unrealistic expectations for children with his bill.

Joseph criticized a provision of the proposal that would limit students to a year in transitional bilingual programs, which integrate the least amount of English into teaching.

“I hope the governor will be able to communicate fluently in Spanish after a year in Mexico,” Joseph said.

Weld is expected to be nominated as ambassador to Mexico.

Joseph’s own 5-year-old daughter speaks Creole and can speak and read English fluently. But he wants her to attend a bilingual first-grade class next year. “I don’t want my child to lose her cultural background. I want her to stay Haitian,” he said.

Supporters of Weld’s bill cite parents like Joseph as examples of bilingual education run amok. Its purpose is to help children learn English as quickly as possible, they say, not to reinforce culture.

Silber charged that those who want to keep children in bilingual education longer are underestimating their abilities.

“Most Western European educational systems have a higher proportion of immigrant children than is the case in the United States, but in none of them are separate bilingual classes the norm,” he said.

Rep. Lane told Silber the bill violates students’ civil rights.

He wrote to the U.S. Department of Education’s Boston civil rights office last week and circulated the response yesterday.

The office’s regional director, Thomas Hibino, wrote that parts of the bill would discriminate against non-native speakers of English.

Silber disputed Hibino’s conclusions and noted that the federal official himself had indicated that he had written his response hastily.

Yesterday’s proceedings did not surprise Quincy Superintendent Eugene Creedon or Quincy School Committee member and state Rep. Ronald Mariano, D-Quincy. Both support the governor’s bill.

While they affirm the educational principle behind the legislation, they also say that Quincy cannot afford the elaborate bilingual program current law mandates.

They also believe the governor’s efforts will eventually change the program for the better.

“Just because you pack a hearing doesn’t mean that’s the way most people really feel about a bill,” Creedon said.

Weld said yesterday that he will work with House and Senate leaders to pass the bill despite the Education Committee’s opposition.

“I really feel pretty strongly on this point that we owe it to the kids in the program to get them in and get them out,” the governor said. “This is one where I’d get with the leadership and try to get this one out on the floor.”

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