Legislative move afoot to alter immersion law
Globe Staff, 4/27/2003
By Megan Tench and Anand Vaishnav Globe Staff, 4/27/2003
fter routing opponents at the ballot box in November, backers of the state's new
English immersion law proclaimed victory in their quest to dismantle bilingual
education in Massachusetts.
But the real battle is just starting in the state Legislature, where lawmakers
last week lined up to propose amendments to water down the tough law. Immersion
proponents are likely to find that winning over voters was a cakewalk compared
with persuading legislators, some of whom vowed to weaken the immersion law
hours after it passed and many of whom are not shy about ignoring voter-approved
Question 2, approved by 68 percent of voters, ends three decades of bilingual
education by placing immigrant students in one-year, all-English
classes before moving them into regular courses. Previously,
non-English-speaking children learned subjects in their native tongues while
easing into regular courses. But critics questioned whether students were
learning English fast enough, and Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz
successfully seized on the discontent last year by partially bankrolling a
ballot initiative to replace bilingual education with immersion.
Having lost the election, bilingual proponents turned to Beacon Hill in search
of a victory, launching a new effort to weaken the law in the Legislature
and organize parents to apply for waivers to keep their children in bilingual
education, regardless of their age.
A proposed amendment allowing all children to apply for waivers would undercut a
key element of the ballot initiative, which permits waivers only for
students 10 and older. Unz attached the age requirement, as well as other
hurdles, to close a loophole that existed in the California version of his
initiative. California's law passed in 1998, and Unz has complained that its
schools allow too many waivers.
The amendment letting any student apply for a waiver ''completely guts the
initiative,'' said Unz, who chastised Massachusetts legislators for trying to
bypass the results of the ballot initiative. ''It seems to me they should honor
the will of the voters.''
But state Representative Alice Wolf, who has introduced the waiver amendment,
dismissed the notion that the amendment - and several others filed
by legislators - undermines the immersion law or the voters' mandate. Instead,
she said, the waiver amendment would offer parents, students, and
schools critical flexibility.
''This gives parents more options for their children's education, and that's
totally appropriate,'' said Wolf, a Cambridge Democrat. ''Parents should be
involved in their children's education and to just leave them out of it is
She also has introduced an amendment that would require the certification of
teachers involved with bilingual students and would overturn the right to
sue teachers who don't adhere to immersion, another controversial component of
the new law that opponents tried to paint as punitive, hoping voters
would be turned off and vote against Question 2.
Governor Mitt Romney also pledged to overturn the portion of Question 2 that
lets parents sue teachers. But it is kept intact in rules before the state
Board of Education that instruct schools on how to implement immersion. The
regulations create a lengthy process of hearings, reviews, and appeals
that could delay lawsuits eight to 12 months or more.
The board will review the rules at its meeting Tuesday as it tries to craft
guidelines that school systems can use to carry out the mandates of Question 2
for the state's 30,000 bilingual students.
The proposed rules also include the popular two-way bilingual programs - in
which bilingual students attend classes with English-speaking students so
both groups learn each other's language - because state Department of Education
officials say only the Legislature can exempt two-way programs.
Under Question 2, two-way bilingual education could exist, but only if its
non-English-speaking students have a good grasp of English. Two-way
backers say that would render the programs useless.
State Representative Peter Larkin has introduced an amendment to the House
budget that would preserve two-way programs. Using only immersion
does a ''disservice'' to many students, he said. ''I don't think we should be
limiting ourselves to one teaching method,'' Larkin said.
But Rosalie Pedalino Porter, chairwoman of Unz's campaign in Massachusetts, said
such amendments lose sight of the ballot initiative's goal to combat instances
in which students have languished in bilingual education classes without ever
mastering the language.
''The main idea here is that these children need to be taught in English right
away, and later on, after the children master the English language and are doing
coursework in English, if they wish, they can enroll in a two-way program,'' she
Larkin also is introducing a measure that calls for more accountability with
bilingual education, a key piece of a law the Legislature passed in August.
Lawmakers hoped to head off Unz's ballot effort by showing voters they were
capable of overhauling the state's 31-year-old bilingual programs, but the
electorate ignored them by voting for Question 2 overwhelmingly.
Larkin's amendment calls for districts and schools to file quarterly reports
with state education officials documenting how well students are learning
English and notify parents of the progress. ''There should be report cards,''
Larkin said. ''Otherwise it's an assumption that a child is learning English.''
Unz applauded the push for stricter regulations. ''Greater involvement and
reports about how well students are doing sounds like a great idea to me,''
But he blasted legislators for trying to dismantle the new immersion law in the
midst of the state's budget crisis. ''Since bilingual education costs more
money than the lack of bilingual education, you would think the state
Legislature would be working to save money, rather than making things more
expensive,'' he said.
Supporters of bilingual education dispute any savings and instead have said it
would cost money to train their staffs - both to teach English immersion
effectively and to handle the influx of students expected to enter mainstream
classrooms after just a year in immersion.
Wolf acknowledged that some of the proposed amendments could affect the budget,
but she could not say by how much.
Legislators are attaching the amendments to the budget in order to approve
changes before the start of school in September. It would take longer,
Wolf said, if the amendments were filed as regular bills.
''The legislative process takes much longer, and we are dealing with school
time, not legislative time,'' she said.
State legislators are not the only ones trying to circumvent the immersion law.
Last week, Boston City Councilor Felix Arroyo urged councilors to sign a
home-rule petition that, if approved by the Legislature, would exempt Boston
schools from implementing immersion. In addition to local leaders opposing
English immersion, Arroyo noted that a majority of Boston's Latino voters - 91
percent - opposed Question 2, according to an exit poll by the Mauricio Gaston
Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy, at the University
of Massachusetts at Boston.
Researchers at the institute found that other cities with large numbers of
Latinos, such as Lawrence, Holyoke, and Springfield, posted similar numbers.
''The amendments do not eliminate what the individual voters wanted,'' Arroyo
said. ''What it is allowing is the flexibility of choice to those who want
choices because it affects their children.''
City and school leaders have the backing of teachers, many of whom campaigned
against the initiative. Tom Maher, a science teacher at Marshall
Elementary School in Dorchester, fears some students with limited English skills
will be frustrated with immersion.
''I can say there are already so many students who don't have a working command
of the English language and they can't really understand what's
being taught,'' said Maher. ''This can cause disruptions. Kids will do what they
naturally do when feeling left out, and it is going to affect everyone in
But Porter reiterated that the state already has decided how bilingual education
should be carried out.
''If any or all of the provisions were to be put into the law, it would totally
overturn the will of the voters in Massachusetts,'' she said.
This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 4/27/2003.
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