State board eases rules on bilingual education

Members say flexibility needed, but parents attack move as racist

Against vehement opposition from parents, the state Board of Education yesterday unanimously changed bilingual education regulations to give local educators more flexibility in running the 27-year-old program.

The board also strongly encouraged the Legislature to adopt a Weld administration proposal that would forbid students whose first language is not English from staying in native-language classes longer than three years. The vote represents the first major changes in the program’s history.

“If we care about these children more than about some linguistic ideology, we have got to teach them English,” said board chairman John R. Silber. “We have seen the research on bilingual education, and we know very well the record of failure in that program.”

The changes to state regulations approved yesterday increase bilingual class sizes, allow schools to teach students with a wider range of native languages and ages in the same class, and do away with a requirement for bilingual parent advisory councils that now meet according to strict rules and timetables. Schools will be allowed to have bilingual programs run by administrators not trained in bilingual education.

While board members characterized the changes as cutting schools loose from bureaucratic strings, advocates and parents at the board’s meeting in Melrose called them racism.

The changes approved yesterday will result in schools blocking parent involvement, they warned. And they predicted that Governor William F. Weld’s bill would trigger an even higher dropout rate among students in bilingual classes, by holding them to an unrealistic deadline for learning to speak English.

“We know from history that school districts disrespect the needs of minority parents,” said Virginia Vogel Zanger, past president of the Massachusetts Association for Bilingual Education. “The reason we have this law is because prior to 1970, hundreds of children were out of school because districts were not doing the right thing. We will have a repeat of that.”

But Silber held up studies saying that while Massachusetts in 1970 set up the nation’s first mandated bilingual education program, it now has the worst.

As parents gasped, heckled, and even wept, Silber read out a letter from a student at a Boston high school as evidence that schools are not adequately serving students who are not English-speaking. He pointed out errors in grammar – the student spelled “that” “thet” 11 times – and in usage. Though the student said two years of bilingual education had prepared him “for any job,” Silber said the letter was proof that it had not prepared him at all.

“This is a very serious and wonderful young man whose ambitions and needs are not being met by those who run that school,” Silber said.

Silber said he was basing his arguments for change on other similar anecdotes, as well as a study by the Center for Educational Opportunity, a Washington-based think tank headed by Linda Chavez, a former Reagan administration official. In an April report, the center gave Massachusetts a D-minus for its bilingual education program, placing it last along with New York among a ranking of states.

The study concluded that the success of bilingual programs depends on how much time those programs spend teaching in English, and that children learn English best when they learn it early. The center ranked Massachusetts low because bilingual-education students here are isolated “in segregated educational ghettos.”

“Many supporters of bilingual education believe the best bilingual programs last five to seven years,” Silber quoted the report as saying. “They are wrong. This is far too long to keep students segregated.”

He quoted remarks in the center’s study from Alfredo Nunez, principal of Boston’s Agassiz Elementary School: “The isolation of students within a school perpetuates a second-class-citizen mentality that produces a sort of feeling of being in a ghetto.”

Board members applauded Commissioner Robert V. Antonucci for having what they called the courage to move forward with changes despite opposition.

But they also insisted that the changes yesterday would not dismantle bilingual education, nor would they force out parents who want to have a say in their children’s education. Rather, they said, the changes would give schools flexibility to say how parents can be involved. The original regulations dictated that the schools had to set up bilingual parent councils, which had to meet regularly with school officials, and at least once annually with the school committee.

The board’s vote will also allow schools to include students who are up to two years apart in age to be instructed in the same bilingual kindergarten program. The existing regulations said students could be no more than a year apart. In high schools, students can be up to five years apart in age, whereas previous regulations said they could be only four years apart.

The vote will also allow schools to increase class sizes in bilingual education from a maximum of 18 to an average of 20.

Unanimously, board members voted to encourage the Legislature to move forward with Weld’s bill, which would limit students in bilingual education to three years, and mandate that only English be used in instruction after the first year.

“This should encourage the Legislature, to know that the board is unanimous,” Antonucci said later. “We need to make changes well beyond what the board did.”

The regulations, and Weld’s bill, were also endorsed by the state’s school superintendents’ association.

But parents and advocates said it was only to save schools money, and was not in the best interest of children. The time limits on bilingual education, they said, are based on bad research.

“This is an outright racist attack,” said Sandra Alvarado, head of Boston’s Latino Parents Association and a graduate of the Boston public schools’ bilingual education programs. “An attack to a community that’s been wounded again and again because the policy makers refuse to listen to the real voices; the voices of people who like me are telling you that bilingual education works.”

The board had received 200 comments in writing, and heard from nearly 2,000 speakers, nearly all of them critics, at four public hearings on the proposed changes.

“This public process has been more public than anything we have ever done,” Antonucci responded to the critics in the audience. “If people don’t like something, they tend to say we didn’t listen. We did listen.”

Comments are closed.