Bilingual Education on Ballot in Two States
New York Times
October 9, 2002
By JENNIFER MEDINA
ROCKTON, Mass., Oct. 2 - All across this Boston suburb, lawns are dotted
with signs promoting candidates running in the election next month. But there is
virtual silence on a ballot measure that could change the lives of more than
35,000 students in the state.
The measure, like a similar one in Colorado, would replace the bilingual
education program in the public schools with one meant to teach children English
in a matter of months instead of years.
Approval of the measures would mean two more victories for the English immersion
movement, after California and Arizona approved similar initiatives in 1998 and
The ballot propositions in both states call for all non-English speakers to be
placed in English immersion classes for one year before being moved to
mainstream classrooms. The approach would replace a 30-year-old policy of
bilingual education in which students are taught subjects like math, science and
social studies in their native languages, most often
Spanish, while gradually being introduced to English.
Parents would be able to apply for waivers for their children to remain in
bilingual education, though districts could reject such requests without
Teachers, parents and politicians on both sides of the debate say that teaching
English as a second language to 4.4 million students in public schools is
critical to helping them succeed in American society. But they are at odds over
which approach is most effective.
"We are talking about the best way to teach English learners, but there does not
seem to be a way to get a clear-cut answer to that," said Robert Linquanti, a
researcher for WestEd, which studies educational policies for effectiveness. Mr.
Linquanti wrote a report for the California Legislature earlier this year that
found no major effect from the switch to English immersion.
Teachers' unions, school superintendents and Secretary of Education Rod Paige
have voiced opposition to the initiatives. Although they do not necessarily
favor bilingual education, they say individual districts or teachers should
decide which approach to use.
The initiatives in both states are backed by Ron K. Unz, a Silicon Valley
millionaire and software engineer who began an English immersion movement four
years ago in California. Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for governor of
Massachusetts, has endorsed the initiative while his Democratic opponent,
Shannon P. O'Brien, has opposed it.
Rita Montero, a former Denver school board member and a leader of the
English-only initiative in Colorado, argues that children cannot learn English
with the bilingual approach.
"When you have students being taught in Spanish and expect them to learn English
later on, they are just doomed to fail," said Ms. Montero, who pulled her son
out of a bilingual class 10 years ago. "This isn't working and it is cheating
But Susan McGilvray-Rivet, who oversees bilingual services in Framingham, Mass.,
says making children learn English while putting other subjects on hold will
cause those students to fall further behind their English-speaking counterparts.
"The idea that these children shouldn't learn the same material as other
students is absurd," Ms. McGilvray-Rivet said in a debate this week at Brandeis
University. "We cannot expect everyone to learn at the same rate and then allow
them to fail. They need support in their native language."
Rosalie Porter, a former director of bilingual education who also spoke at the
debate, responded that if students did not learn English soon after entering
schools in the United States, they would languish and the largely
Spanish-speaking population would continue to post low test scores.
English is a second language for about 4.6 percent of the students in
Massachusetts public schools; in Colorado the figure is 8 percent. Both states
use bilingual education and immersion, with most schools adopting some
combination of the two.
In this middle-class suburb south of Boston, bilingual programs are offered in
Spanish as well as Cape Verdean Creole and Haitian Creole. But the students also
take some classes in English, including an eighth-grade reading class taught by
"Why was Johnny Appleseed a folk hero?" Ms. Hoeg asked her class one recent
morning, pointing to a diagram on the chalkboard. "Do you remember what a folk
Clifford Louissaint, who arrived from Cape Verde six years ago, eagerly raised
his hand. "Someone who has done something to help people, like firefighters," he
Nearby, a student translated Clifford's answer for a girl who arrived this year
from Brazil. The students' next class, social studies, was taught in their
In California, where 25 percent of the state's students are not native English
speakers, voters approved an English immersion program by 61 percent to 39
percent in 1998. Since then, test scores in first through third grades have
climbed, with 27 percent of English learners scoring above the 50th percentile,
up from 13 percent four years ago. There have been none of the sharp declines
that some opponents of the proposition predicted.
Still, it is not clear whether non-English speaking pupils are learning the
language any faster. About 7.8 percent of California students were moved to
mainstream English classes in 2002, compared with 7 percent in 1998, before the
Nationwide, about 850,000 students who speak English as a second language were
in bilingual education programs in 2000, compared with 976,000 enrolled in
English-only programs, according to the National Clearinghouse for English
Language Acquisition. More than 2 million are in programs that combine the two
Current polls show that about 60 percent of voters in both Colorado and
Massachusetts favor the limits on bilingual education. But last week Patricia
Stryker, a Fort Collins, Colo., philanthropist, donated $3 million to the
Colorado campaign to retain bilingual education, and supporters of the measure
concede that the expected media blitz could
help defeat the measure.
Mr. Unz said he had spent about $1 million on the initiatives in the four states
since 1998. Whether or not the latest initiatives are approved, Mr. Unz is
likely to continue trying to eliminate bilingual education elsewhere. He has
said he has considered mounting campaigns or legal battles to install English
immersion progams in Oregon, Illinois and New York.
The initiatives allow for parents to request waivers, and Mr. Unz has criticized
California districts for granting thousands of waivers since 1998. The current
ballot measures would allow teachers and other school officials to be sued if
they pressured parents to request such waivers or could not provide sound
reasons for granting them.
In both states, opponents of the initiatives have focused on the lawsuit issue.
In Massachusetts, the committee against the initiative has distributed bumper
stickers and signs reading, "Don't Sue Teachers."
School officials are unsure how school systems would change or how the laws
would be enforced if the proposals pass. "I try not to think about it," said Dr.
McGilvray-Rivet of Framingham. "We just don't know what we would do."
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