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Debate heats up over the fate of bilingual classes
By Anand Vaishnav and Benjamin Gedan, Globe Staff, 10/23/2002
The debate over a ballot initiative to replace bilingual education with English
immersion escalated dramatically yesterday as supporters and opponents hit the
airwaves, university campuses, and downtown breakfast gatherings, drumming up
support as the election nears.
Those on opposite sides of Question 2, financed by Silicon Valley
multimillionaire Ron Unz, faced off in a live television forum over whether a
year of English immersion is enough, and over its results after four years in
''We shouldn't trust bilingual educators and administrators who continue to
believe that the best program for immigrant children is a native language
program,'' Lincoln Tamayo, chairman of English for the Children of
Massachusetts, said on the 10-minute discussion on WBZ-TV (Channel 4).
Tim Duncan, chairman of the Committee for Fairness to Children and Teachers, or
FACT, replied that school districts should be able to pick bilingual programs
that best suit them. ''We trust our own communities, educators, the people we
elect, to make these decisions for us,'' he said.
A blitz of events, including more rallies and forums scheduled for today, is
intensifying the wrangling over Question 2. Much of the debate comes from
educators and activists fighting a measure that media and campaign polls show
has strong support statewide.
At an early-morning panel, bilingual proponents accused the Question 2 campaign
of accepting a $5,000 donation from a group led by a Michigan doctor who they
say is a leading antiimmigration activist. Later in the day, the Massachusetts
Federation of Teachers announced a print and radio advertising campaign against
the Unz initiative.
Also yesterday, state Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll announced that he
opposes Question 2, as does Lesley University president Margaret A. McKenna, who
will ask the presidents of Boston College, Boston University, and Harvard
University to sign a joint statement denouncing the ballot initiative. It's the
first time in recent memory that Lesley has taken an institutional stance on a
controversial public policy issue, university officials said.
Unz, meanwhile, seemed half-amused at the storm his initiative has spurred. He
sat unnoticed during the morning panel sponsored by the Pioneer Institute and
the Boston Municipal Research Bureau about his measure. Shuttling between media
interviews, he voiced confidence in a victory for English immersion. A similar
measure is on the ballot in Colorado next month; his plans passed in California
in 1998 and Arizona in 2000.
''I'm tending to doubt that a couple of weeks of radio or TV advertisements
could really sway that many voters,'' Unz said. ''I'd say we have a good chance
Currently, Massachusetts' 39,000 bilingual students take classes in their native
tongue while easing into English over several years - a method that works if
done well, its proponents say. But Question 2 backers prefer placing students in
all-English classes right away, saying students learn English best when they're
taught in the language. Students currently stay in bilingual classes in
Massachusetts an average of 21/2 years.
At the WBZ-TV studios in Brighton, Tamayo and Duncan each listened politely as
the other recited what are becoming familiar arguments.
Duncan pointed to statistics from California showing that as few as 8 percent of
students there are ready to enter mainstream classes after one year of English
immersion. But Tamayo said schools have a financial incentive to keep students
classified as ''limited English proficient'' because those students get more
state and federal funds.
Duncan also highlighted that teachers could be sued under Question 2, but Tamayo
noted that no teacher in California or Arizona has been sued so far.
Tamayo, a native of Cuba, became animated when Duncan charged that his
experience as an immigrant was not applicable to other immigrant groups. Tamayo
said immigrants from Asian countries have succeeded without bilingual education.
''How can they possibly explain the fact that these students are doing well?''
he asked. ''They're in English immersion.''
After the debate, Tamayo denied that Question 2 is an oversimplified solution.
And the issue hits home personally. ''I have lived this,'' he said.
Duncan said he did not think the brief televised discussion did much to inform
voters on how complex bilingual education really is.
''The problem is that it's an education issue,'' he said. ''It's very
complicated. It's been very difficult for anyone to get an idea of what we even
have now'' in bilingual programs. In August, state legislators approved a new
law giving districts more leeway in choosing bilingual programs in exchange for
tighter state oversight.
Earlier in the day, Tamayo sat on a panel with Thomas W. Payzant and Wilfredo T.
Laboy, school superintendents in Boston and Lawrence, Charles L. Glenn, the
Boston University professor who authored Massachusetts' first bilingual law in
1971, and Peter J. Larkin, the state lawmaker who coauthored the new law that
Larkin, chairman of the Legislature's joint Education Committee, said voters
essentially will kill the new bilingual law if they approve Question 2.
But Glenn wondered whether the new legislation will be enforced, noting that the
Commonwealth's 1971 bilingual education initiative had accountability planks few
had followed. Glenn said yesterday he remains undecided on Question 2.
Payzant urged the audience of about 100 business people and educators not to
make public policy by popular vote. And Laboy said he prefers elementary
immersion the way his city does it: English all day, except for 45 minutes daily
reading in the students' native tongue, and assistance in the language for up to
''We put them in the water. We immerse them. But we give them oxygen. We give
them goggles. We support them,'' said Laboy, who does not back Question 2.
At the panel, Charles Glick, a consultant for FACT, asked why the Unz campaign
accepted a $5,000 donation from an Arlington, Va., group called ProEnglish. One
of the board members of ProEnglish - which advocates English-only policies - is
Michigan ophthalmologist John H. Tanton, who quit a group he founded, US
English, after memos he wrote caused a stir. One memo linked immigration to the
high Hispanic birth rate, and some of his colleagues in the group, including
conservative columnist Linda Chavez, resigned in protest.
Yesterday, FACT called on Tamayo to return the donation, calling Tanton's
writings anti-Latino and anti-Catholic. Tanton was traveling yesterday and
couldn't be reached for comment, said K.C. McAlpin, executive director of
dismissed FACT's assertions about Tanton.
Tamayo also returned fire, charging that FACT took $125,000 from The Shefa Fund,
a nonprofit group active in Jewish philanthropy that he termed ''ultraliberal.''
Tamayo has filed a state complaint charging that the gift is illegal because The
Shefa Fund is a tax-exempt nonprofit, although IRS rules allow some donations by
This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 10/23/2002.
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