Swift seeking further changes

Tighter limit asked on bilingual classes

While legislative leaders celebrated the House passage last week of a bill that overhauls bilingual education, aides to Acting Governor Jane Swift said she wants a bill that is tougher on the amount of time students spend in bilingual classes.

Swift wants to reduce from three to two years the limit on the time students can remain in bilingual education. That was the cap in legislation she filed earlier this year, which was not approved by the Legislature’s Joint Education Committee. A three-year cap, Swift aides said, is the current limit and is routinely exceeded.

The state House of Representatives last week voted 137-14 to revamp the 31-year-old bilingual education law, which allows students with a limited command of English to take classes in their native tongues and gradually move into courses where English is spoken.

Lawmakers speeded action on the controversial issue because of a November ballot initiative that proposes replacing bilingual education with one-year English immersion classes.

The bill – sponsored by state Representative Peter J. Larkin, the House chairman of the Education Committee – is now pending in the Senate, where it could be debated as early as this week. Whether Swift would sign it in its House form or make changes first remains a question.

”It’s just impossible to say what she’ll do at this point,” said her press secretary, James Borghesani. ”One of her options would be to send it back in a changed form to make it more similar to her bill.”

James A. Peyser, Swift’s education adviser, said Swift is also concerned that the bill requires some native-language instruction alongside whatever bilingual education program school districts choose to provide. That provision makes the bill too much like the status quo and could also drive up costs for school districts when budgets are falling, Peyser said.

But supporters of the ballot initiative say that nothing short of throwing out most bilingual education programs will suffice. Swift has declined to voice support for the initiative but has not criticized it either. Borghesani said the acting governer would prefer to change bilingual education through the Legislature instead of through the ballot box.

Opponents of the ballot initiative are pinning their hopes on the Larkin bill, believing they can persuade voters that bilingual education can be changed without a ballot question.

The initiative campaign is financed by Silicon Valley millionare Ron Unz.

”If it’s clearly understood by the voters that there must be some flexibility in these programs, just as there is in other educational areas, then perhaps we can avoid the Unz initiative,” said Michele Owaroff Snow, an English-as-a-second-language teacher at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School.

Larkin, a Pittsfield Democrat, coauthored the bill with the Senate chairman of the Education Committee, Senator Robert A. Antonioni, Democrat of Leominster.

Last week, Antonioni said he was confident that legislators can iron out their differences with Swift on time limits.

”We could certainly look at the criteria there,” he said. ”The goal is the same. We want to limit the involvement of these students in this bilingual program and make sure the time they spend is worthwhile. … I’m willing to talk to the governor about it.”

Representative Antonio F.D. Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat and a staunch supporter of bilingual education, has vowed to try to soften the bill in the Senate, but Antonioni said that attempt won’t get far.

The bill that passed the House contains some significant changes in the way Massachusetts educates the roughly 40,000 students in bilingual programs:

Under current law, schools with more than 20 students who speak the same foreign language must provide transitional bilingual education, teaching students in their native tongues. Under the House bill, school systems could choose from a variety of bilingual offerings, from transitional bilingual education to immersion classes, or create their own. Parents must be notified of the options and approve of the bilingual program the district suggests for their children.

Every three years, districts must submit plans to the state Department of Education on boosting the performance of limited-English learners. The plans are subject to a public hearing.

Bilingual teachers must be certified in bilingual education.

Schools must test bilingual students annually and report how many years they have spent in bilingual programs. The state can declare school systems underperforming if the achievement of bilingual students does not improve.

Students can remain in bilingual classes for two years, plus a third year devoted to creating a plan to move them to courses taught in English.

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