WHEN FACED WITH the need to teach tough lessons that may please a few and offend many, Boston’s school superintendent, Thomas Payzant, is not afraid to take the unpopular course. It is one of the superintendent’s better qualities and a key reason why the Boston schools make steady progress.

Despite protests, Payzant seeks to dismantle a 23-year-old, outdated mechanism for bilingual education – the Lau plan – that puts considerable power in the hands of a parent advocacy group. The move is part of an effort by the superintendent to align bilingual education in Boston with state policy, improve parent support services, and save money during tight budget times. Payzant has been openly ignoring some of the more wasteful requirements of the compliance plan. But a Superior Court judge has ruled that the Boston School Committee must either implement the bilingual plan or repeal it.

The Lau plan no longer serves the best interests of the city’s 9,000 bilingual students. Followed to the letter, it clusters large numbers of bilingual students in too few schools, dictates class size, and allocates funds to a bilingual parent advisory council that is not sufficiently accountable to the superintendent. The School Committee would do well to repeal the plan when it meets tomorrow and give Payzant and his bilingual staffers enough flexibility to improve the system.

Advocates for bilingual education fear that Payzant’s changes will weaken the system’s commitment to bilingual education. And they complain, with some cause, that the superintendent is tone deaf when it comes to special interests politics. Payzant, for example, would redirect much of the power and money away from the bilingual and special education advisory councils and toward family resource centers more directly under his control.

Payzant is on point, however. Academic performance, not political empowerment, should be the first priority of every Boston family whose child attends bilingual education programs. Boston’s bilingual students fail the statewide Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests at rates significantly higher than the systemwide average. Sixty percent of Boston’s bilingual students, for example, failed the 10th grade MCAS examination in English in 2001, as opposed to 36 percent systemwide. Closing that gap is more important than pleasing every constituent.

Bilingual education is in great flux in Massachusetts. A ballot initiative in the fall proposes to do away with the multilayered and multiyear bilingual programs across the state in favor of a single year of English immersion for students whose native tongue isn’t English. Both Payzant and his critics oppose the proposal. If they spar with one another, there will be less time and energy available to work against this simplistic initiative.

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