Swift touts her bilingual education proposal to state's superintendents

MARLBORO, Mass. — Acting Gov. Jane Swift said Wednesday a ballot question to dismantle the state’s current bilingual education system is too rigid and urged the Legislature to enact her plans for reform.

The proposed ballot question would give students one year to learn English through intensive language classes. The initiative was launched by Ron Unz, a software entrepreneur and Harvard University graduate, who helped bankroll similar successful petitions in California and Arizona.

On Tuesday, Swift pledged in her State of the State address to file legislation giving cities and towns the flexibility to shape their own bilingual programs. Her plan would give students two years of English language instruction, and teachers would have to be certified.

The state’s current bilingual program provides for three years of language instruction, with waivers for a fourth year. Currently, language teachers can be granted waivers from certification because they’re usually in short supply.

Swift said she agrees reform must happen but said a one-year plan is too rigid.

”The Unz amendment is a sledgehammer that’s out there for a lot of the right reasons,” she told the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

If the Legislature fails to act, she said, ”the public and others will come in and prescribe a solution.”

Ballot question opponents say the state’s 30-year-old bilingual system, the nation’s oldest, should be improved, not discarded, adding it takes more than a year to learn a foreign language.

Jim Kerrigan, assistant principal at Rockland High School, said the current system is flawed. For example, the 15 Brazilian students in his district are taught by a tutor who speaks Portuguese, but she’s on sick leave.

”There’s no one in our district able to communicate with these kids. … They don’t get the services they should get,” he said.

If the state required such instructors to be certified, the students would be without an instructor, he said, because certification in most cases requires at least a college degree.

”We’d be in trouble trying to find someone to fit that bill,” Kerrigan said.

Teacher certification in itself won’t help, because it doesn’t have an oral component, Lawrence superintendent Wilfredo T. Laboy argued.

”Kids cannot get it if the teachers cannot give it,” he said, noting that all language teachers in his district are required to pass an oral competency test.

Laboy estimated that 40 uncertified language teachers work in the district. He said 80 percent of his 13,000 students identify a language other than English as their first language.

Swift’s proposal would hold districts accountable for teaching children English by testing the bilingual students.

”We know what we’re doing right now isn’t working,” she said.

Proposals by Swift and those in the Legislature won’t convince backers of the ballot question to pull it, Lincoln Tamayo said.

”What she is doing is literally watering down the status quo and reforming nothing,” said Tamayo, a former Chelsea High School principal and petition drive chairman. ”She’s allowing for native language instruction for two years instead of three. This is a baldfaced political compromise.”

Swift’s proposal would allow special needs students or those entering public schools after age 10 to seek a waiver for a third year.

Focusing on a number of years is the wrong approach, said Laboy.

”Two is not a magic number,” he said. ”It has to be comprehensive. It’s not that it’s two years, or three, or one. Let’s transition kids out with support. It takes money to get it done and courage to make it happen.”

Laboy said the Unz group visited Lawrence last year and was impressed with the district’s immersion program for kindergarten through second grades. He said he turned down the group’s invitation to join their campaign, because their proposal is just one year.

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