BOSTON– A poll shows that 61 percent of state voters, and 69 percent in Central and Western Massachusetts, would strongly support a ballot initiative to replace bilingual education with English-only instruction.
The poll was commissioned by the English for the Children group led by California millionaire Ron Unz, which is collecting signatures to put the measure on the ballot next year.
Opponents of bilingual education say immigrant and non-native-English speaking students are not learning English fast enough and are falling behind in school and at work. Supporters maintain that learning in two languages helps students adjust better to the new language and culture.
At a Statehouse press conference yesterday, Mr. Unz announced the poll results and said his group has gathered 101,000 signatures, almost double the 57,200 required by the Nov. 21 deadline.
The large number of signatures makes it likely that the measure will go before voters Nov. 5.
In Worcester, election officials have certified 4,628 valid signatures — more than 50 percent of those turned in. Any validation rate above 40 percent is considered high, said Craig A.J. Manseau, executive director of the city Election Commission.
The campaign promises to be vigorously contested, with emotions high in what has been a controversial issue in other states.
Mr. Unz said he has spent about $200,000 on the Bay State campaign, including hiring a professional signature-gathering firm. He said California software businessman Reed Hastings, a Boston native, has also given $20,000.
?The results have been very impressive and very successful,? said Mr. Unz, who has bankrolled successful similar efforts in California and Arizona. ?The support in Massachusetts seems far greater than it ever was in California, and I’m confident it will be successful a year from now.?
Opponents of the initiative attended the press conference, saying afterward they are raising money and organizing across the state. One bilingual advocate peppered Mr. Unz with questions on the California origins of his movement.
Roger Rice, a member of Educational Choices for Massachusetts, which is fighting the initiative, charged that the poll question was biased and that signature collectors hired by Mr. Unz have misrepresented the issue.
?Lots of people have been deceived into signing this,? Mr. Rice said. ?They were told it was a campaign to improve bilingual education, not to end it.?
The poll was by Mass Insight, a nonprofit public policy group. About 400 state residents were asked whether all public school instruction should be conducted in English and whether students not fluent in English should be placed in an intensive one-year English ?immersion? program.
Sixty-nine percent of respondents in Central and Western Massachusetts said they would ?definitely? support such changes in the bilingual system, while another 11 percent would ?probably? support them.
Among all those surveyed by the poll, 61 percent answered ?definitely yes,? and 16 percent said ?probably yes? when asked whether they would support changes outlined in the initiative.
The poll question was also supported by a solid majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents, and by a majority of members of all income groups.
State Sen. Guy W. Glodis, D-Worcester, a leading supporter in the Legislature of dismantling the bilingual system, said yesterday he is convinced that the measure will pass here in ?record numbers.?
?Bilingual education has been a consistent failure,? he said.
Mr. Glodis criticized legislative attempts to improve the system as ineffectual.
Two major bills have been introduced this year. They would tighten bilingual teacher certification standards and authorize other educational options, such as ?two-way? programs in which students speak and learn both English and another language.
The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education, co-chaired by Sen. Robert A. Antonioni, D-Leominster, is working on another compromise bill, which bilingual opponents say will not make them drop the initiative drive.
?The Education Committee is going to release a cosmetic reform bill without substantive changes,? Mr. Glodis said.
In Worcester, 85 percent of the 946 students in Spanish, Vietnamese and Polish bilingual classes make the transition to English-only classes within three years, according to Superintendent of Schools James A. Caradonio.
Another 1,000 students are taught in separate English as a Second Language classes, where they stay for more than three years. The Worcester schools also offer two-way programs.
The city’s experience indicates that the bilingual approach is working, said Mr. Caradonio, a former bilingual education teacher.
?It’s not educationally sound,? he said of the Unz initiative. ?It’s one-size-fits-all education. Many of the ills that the Unz bill is trying to address aren’t problems in Worcester.?
Certified petition signatures have to be turned in to Secretary of State William F. Galvin by Dec. 1. Supporters must get another 9,517 signatures next spring.