Schools seek to phase in English Immersion called too costly for fall
By Anand Vaishnav, Globe Staff, 1/23/2003
Nineteen of Massachusetts' biggest school systems yesterday asked state
officials for a delay in immersing all of their bilingual students into
English-only classes, arguing that the voter-approved initiative is too costly
and too complicated to begin this fall.
In a letter to Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, the school systems asked that
English immersion programs be phased in over three years. After a rancorous
campaign,voters in November overwhelmingly replaced bilingual programs with
one-year, all-English classes in Massachusetts public schools.
But the superintendents' request could be the first clash in the battle between
Governor Mitt Romney, who vows to implement immersion, and the predominantly
Democratic Legislature, whose members hope to water down some or all of the
In addition, the unified front of superintendents who fought the immersion
ballot question seems to be cracking, as three heavily minority cities - Boston,
Chelsea, and Holyoke - did not sign the letter, although leaders there have
supported the option of bilingual education.
''I would rather be prepared to implement Question 2 as best we can in
September rather than assume that it won't happen and then be told in September,
`You didn't plan ahead,''' Boston Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant said.
Still, the 19 members of the Urban Superintendents' Network said they have
strong reasons to push for a delay: They said there is neither time nor money to
train their staffs, either to teach English immersion effectively or to handle
the influx of students expected to enter mainstream classrooms after just a year
Lowell Superintendent Karla Brooks Baehr, a leader of the superintendents'
group, said her colleagues made the request after Healey encouraged them to
suggest regulations that could be eased to save money.
''The question now under very challenging budget circumstances is how fast can
we do it well enough for kids,'' Baehr said. ''If we knew we could phase this in
over a two- or three-year period, for many of us, we think we'd be able to do a
much better job.''
Yesterday, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, who backed the immersion
initiative in Massachusetts, derided a delay as ''completely fraudulent.''
In addition, the request is not likely to get far with the Romney
administration. ''The people of Massachusetts were very clear in voting to teach
English to kids, and the governor and the lieutenant governor have every
intention of implementing the will of the people,'' spokeswoman Shawn Feddeman
Bilingual education, which many schools taught for three decades, is the
practice of teaching non-English-speaking children in their native tongues and
easing them into English. Immersion is the opposite: surrounding immigrant
students in all-English classes with only token amounts of their native
The superintendents have won support from Representative Peter J. Larkin, a
Pittsfield Democrat, and Senator Robert A. Antonioni, a Leominster Democrat.
Both cochair the Legislature's joint education committee.
''Even if the governor were to veto this, my guess is there would be sufficient
numbers in both branches to override any veto,'' said Antonioni. ''I'm not sure
his leverage on this issue is such that it would prevent the Legislature from
lending a sympathetic ear to those who actually have to make this question
What Question 2 will cost is unclear. Pro-bilingual activists last year pegged
the statewide price tag at $125 million, but superintendents in several
districts said they haven't analyzed the expense yet because much depends on
what the state Department of Education will require. The DOE is expected to
unveil regulations on Question 2 next week.
Payzant estimated that it would cost about $5 million in Boston if the state
doesn't require school systems to pick up the cost of training teachers. In
California and Arizona - two states that successfully passed the Unz initiative
- education specialists yesterday said they did not know of any valid studies of
costs there. They said some school systems spent more on English-language
textbooks and materials, and on training regular-education teachers who were
unaccustomed to having non-English speakers join their classrooms.
Revere Superintendent Paul Dakin, who favors a phasing in of the change, said he
fears having to eliminate teacher training in other areas to make way for
immersion. ''We're not trying to dodge the mandate,'' he said. ''We're trying to
make it more fiscally and humanly possible.''
School systems seeking a delay are Brockton, Cambridge, Chicopee, Fall River,
Fitchburg, Framingham, Haverhill, Lawrence, Leominster, Lowell, Lynn, Malden,
New Bedford, Pittsfield, Revere, Somerville, Springfield, Taunton, and
This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 1/23/2003. © Copyright 2003
Globe Newspaper Company.