The changes the state Board of Education made in bilingual education programs this week do not amount to dismantling the effort, as critics charge. They do mean more local control of bilingual programs and greater flexibility, which should make it easier for school committees to manage bilingual education.
After 27 years of using the same framework, it was time for change. The legitimacy of bilingual education has been questioned since its inception, and there remains considerable evidence that many youngsters do just as well learning English without being in such a program, at least for long periods of time. According to one Washington think tank’s rating, Massachusetts’ bilingual education programs are among the worst in the country.
The changed regulations will permit local communities to enlarge class sizes, to put children of different ages in a single class and eliminate bilingual guidance counselors and parent councils. On the South Shore, Quincy Randolph and Scituate are the only school districts with bilingual education programs.
These changes do not grant Quincy what it wants–the freedom to mix children from different languages in a single group to learn English as a second language. Governor Weld has submitted legislation, which the board endorsed, that would change the law to permit a plan such as Quincy’s. The Legislature should enact Weld’s plan.
One reason the board’s changes have come under fire is because they were pushed by controversial state Board Chairman John Silber, an acknowledged opponent of bilingual programs. Critics this week called the new flexibility “racist.” That charge is unfortunate and unwarranted.
Silber’s views are strongly held and he offends people easily, but his goals for education are the right ones. And he has a lifetime of experience and success. He wants language programs to work in a way that will most quickly mainstream non-English-speaking children into society. That objective has become more important as the number of immigrants has grown.
Parents who told the board they feared their children would be ignored or disadvantaged–or worse, drop out–if bilingual education programs were limited are underestimating their power of persuasion before local school committees. Sensitivity to language issues and minority issues has increased in the last quarter-century. All parents have to do is keep up the pressure if they feel their youngsters are being unfairly treated.
Learning is never static. And bilingual education programs should be no more immune to change than any other subject.