Tongue-tied - Bilingual education costs strap schools

The state’s antiquated bilingual education law has buried cities and towns under a costly bureaucratic mountain and left some students languishing in non-English classes for five years or more, a Herald review has found.

The bilingual education mandate, enacted under political pressure in 1970, has both supporters and opponents calling for a major overhaul of the system that costs the state’s public schools more than $ 154 million a year.

A bill from Gov. William F. Weld to dramatically overhaul the law died in the Legislature’s Committee on Education, leaving reformers to grope for changes.

“The law itself is just crazy,” said Christine Rossell, a Boston University professor who authored a highly critical study assailing Massachusetts bilingual education. “People thought this was the way to change it, by pandering to everybody. That’s what politics is.”

Planned to address the needs of disenfranchised Spanish-speaking students, the state’s bilingual system has mushroomed to full programs in more than 20 languages, including various dialects within some foreign tongues, such as Chinese and Portuguese.

A Herald review of the system shows:

At least four communities offer transitional bilingual programs in Cape Verdean but linguistic experts said that is a language that has no official written form. Teachers must either interpret English texts orally or use Portuguese books.

More than one in five of the state’s bilingual students are left in the programs beyond the mandated maximum of three years, some staying from first grade into high school.

School systems must initiate courses in languages where certified teachers are nearly impossible to find because of a requirement that transitional bilingual courses be offered when at least 20 students of the same language, regardless of grade, are enrolled in a school.

Lowell, for instance, has a transitional bilingual program in Gujarati, a dialect spoken in the western region of India.

In some cases, as few as three students are enrolled in bilingual classes. Some systems spend two and three times as much per pupil in bilingual education compared to regular education.

“The current law puts an unacceptable burden on school systems,” said John R. Silber, chairman of the Board of Education and one of the original architects of the federal bilingual standards in the 1960s. “This is where Massachusetts went way beyond the federal standards. We continue to trap these students in their original language.”

Since the late 1970s, the Cambodian language of Khmer has sprouted numerous bilingual ed courses around the state as refugees fled to the United States. And at least three cities – Boston, Chelsea and Lynn – offer bilingual ed in Bosnian or Somalian as upheaval in those countries forces natives to flee.

In some school systems, the majority of students in bilingual classrooms were born in the United States – such as Scituate’s 45 Cape Verdean students – raising questions about whether the programs are truly serving immigrants in need of temporary classes in their native tongue.

“That was a mistake,” said former Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, who, as a legislator in 1970, was one of the proponents of the nation’s first bilingual education law. “The general sense among most of us that supported it was that this was to be short-term and transitional.”

The pressure to meet the demands of communities can be seen in a review of state DOE files. Newton and Brookline, with a large Jewish community, have bilingual programs in Hebrew, while Watertown, with its growing Armenian population, has a program in that country’s language.

Even bilingual supporters admitted many parents use the programs as a way for children to learn and retain their cultural heritage.

Georgette Gonzales, director of the bilingual curriculum in Boston, said, “It has nothing to do with language. Parents have their own agenda.”

Gonzales, a Cape Verdean who has a doctorate despite not receiving bilingual instruction as a child, believes the attack on bilingual education stems in part from racism.

“Most of the newcomers are children of color and they come from poorer backgrounds,” said Gonzales.

But other immigrants said learning English and the Amercian culture should be the goal of education if children are to succeed. Irmgard Greulich, her husband and two small sons emigrated from East Germany more than 40 years ago. Both children were placed in English-only classes but each has thrived, she said. The oldest is now a vice president of the family land surveying business and the younger is a biochemist. She believes their success is directly related to learning through the language of their adopted country – English.

“It was my desire not to stick out, to blend in,” said Greulich, who now lives in Lynnfield. “I wanted that for my children, too.”

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