BOSTON — Acting Gov. Jane Swift’s call to reform bilingual education pushes to the fore a long-simmering debate among educators and politicians.

Critics of bilingual education include Lincoln Jesus Tamayo, who came to Massachusetts from Cuba as a child in the mid-1960s. He says he learned to speak English all at once by immersing himself as a kindergartner.

“When I started, I could not speak a word of English,” said Tamayo, a Wenham resident. “By October of my kindergarten year, I could speak English like a parrot. By the end of my kindergarten year, I could read English, as well.”

Tamayo, former principal of Chelsea High School, is Massachusetts chairman of English for the Children, a group that wants to replace bilingual education with a one-year English immersion program. English for the Children is headed by Californian Ron Unz.

At the other end of the debate are bilingual education supporters like Donald Macedo, who arrived in Kingston from the Cape Verde islands in 1966 and watched as many of his Portuguese-speaking peers dropped out of school.

“I was advanced in my education already. I made it, but 95 percent of my peers did not graduate from high school,” said Macedo, who lives in Scituate and teaches linguistics at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

Macedo likens the push to end bilingual education to the backlash against affirmative action.

“The way it’s been framed is basically targeting a particular group of people and deciding which methodology is best,” he said.

In her State of the State address last night, Swift proposed a compromise between those who want to end

bilingual education and those who want to keep it the way it is.

“My plan doesn’t eliminate the current approach, it allows educators a wider range of choices,” Swift said.

Under current law, school districts with 20 or more students who speak the same foreign language must offer bilingual education. Students generally stay in bilingual programs for three years, but parents may keep them there indefinitely.

Students in bilingual programs are taught core subjects such as math and science in both their native tongues and in English. About 4 percent of the state’s public school students are in bilingual education classes.

Critics say the existing law, which dates back to 1971, allows too many immigrant students to graduate without becoming fluent in English.

Swift proposes to scale back bilingual education from three years to two and allow local school districts to create their own bilingual curricula.

Swift’s proposal would give schools the option of offering foreign-speaking students a one-year English immersion program before mainstreaming them into regular classes.

“I don’t think there is one best way to teach kids English,” said James A. Peyser, chairman of the state Board of Education and Swift’s top education adviser. “There’s no single solution.”

Swift’s proposal doesn’t go far enough for bilingual education critics. Tamayo said his group will continue to push for a ballot question that calls for replacing bilingual programs with one year of immersion in English for students lacking fluency in English.

“There used to be a sink-or-swim approach back in the ’50s and ’60s, and that was wrong as well,” he said. “But we went too far the other way. That compromise from the governor is nothing but a watered-down version of what we have.”

Another bilingual education critic is William Kerrigan of Wollaston, a retired banker who volunteers as a tutor.

“I see too many kids getting left behind,” Kerrigan said. “If you look at graduation rates, dropouts, testing, they are almost at the bottom. They’re not getting an opportunity that this country purportedly gives to young people.”

But some educators welcome the idea of greater flexibility in teaching English.

“I think the existing law has been an unqualified disaster,” said Douglas Sears, dean of Boston University School of Education. “The notion that there be freedom for districts based on sound choices is a good one.”

Stephen E. Gorrie, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said the teachers union supports some changes to bilingual education but opposes the proposal to scrap it altogether.

“We’re opposed to the Unz position, basically because it’s inflexible and a one-size-fits-all approach,” he said. “We do appreciate the governor’s attention to the issue, we’ll study her proposal along with other proposals surfacing in the Legislature.”

About 45,000 of the state’s 960,000 public school students have limited English proficiency, and about 38,000 are enrolled in bilingual education classes, according to the state Department of Education.

Tom Benner may be reached at [email protected]

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