After a quarter-century of criticism from educators, politicians and parents, New York City’s Board of Education has unanimously approved an overhaul of the school system’s bilingual education program. The 7-to-0 vote has given Mayor Rudolph Giuliani the strong consensus he wanted to move forward with a long-overdue but inevitably unsettling change. Mr. Giuliani, who has already contributed $9 million, should now help find the balance of the $75 million that Schools Chancellor Harold Levy says he needs to put the program in high gear.

The new system will be modeled on a sensible plan devised largely by a mayoral task force and Mr. Levy. Its purpose is to expose more foreign-born students to more English during the school day. In essence, it would give parents of children who speak little English the right to move them into new classes that emphasize instruction in English rather than in their native language.

Under the present system, about half the 176,000 students enrolled in the bilingual education program are proficient enough to participate in an English-as-a-second-language program, where classes in math and other subjects are taught in English. These children also attend separate English classes. The rest of the bilingual students receive some instruction in English but their other courses are taught mainly in their native languages.

For years, critics have argued that many students never became fluent enough to make their way into the English-speaking educational mainstream. These criticisms were echoed in reports by the mayor’s task force and by Mr. Levy. They noted that students who failed the basic English competency tests were automatically placed in bilingual classes and stayed there unless their parents went to a great deal of trouble to get them out. They urged that parents be given several choices at the beginning, ranging from the traditional bilingual approach to a “sink-or-swim” system that involves virtually full-time immersion in English.

The new program represents a compromise between the advocates of bilingualism and the sink-or-swim school, which has triumphed in Arizona and California, where voters eliminated old-style bilingual education. An exclusively sink-or-swim program would be impossible in New York because of a consent decree that obliges the board to provide bilingual education to those who want it.

The plan will cost an estimated $75 million beyond the $169 million the board now spends on bilingual and English-language education. The new money will be used largely to recruit and train talented teachers. The city has already set aside about $9 million for after-school and weekend bilingual programs. The balance could come from state funds, city funds or a shuffling of the current education budget. But the main responsibility here would seem to rest with Mr. Giuliani, who has long pushed for many of these reforms.

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