Acting Gov. Jane Swift’s proposal to allow communities alternatives to the current bilingual education requirements represents a recognition that the existing program is a failure. Legislative leaders are putting together a more elaborate proposal that also would give options to cities and towns.

Neither proposal goes far enough.

Both are being advanced to give ammunition to opponents of the ballot drive that would abolish the failed “transitional” system in which children who don’t speak English are supposed to be schooled in their native languages for at least three years. But too many remain in the language ghetto much longer – one study of 14 Massachusetts programs found only one in which a quarter of the students “graduated” on time. And MCAS tests show that they badly lag others in achievement.

The “English immersion” method supported by backers of the ballot question is far better. This starts instruction in English right away; the native language is used to help in rough spots. California voters passed a law requiring this method and percentile test scores of affected children rose 40 percent.

Permission to adopt an alternative is not much of a reform. In larger cities, the prospect of a bruising battle with unrepresentative but loud advocacy groups would deter many school committees from switching.

Real reform is embodied in the “English for the Children” ballot proposal, modeled on the California law. It deserves support here too.

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