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Sides debate cost of switch to English-immersion plan

By Anand Vaishnav, Globe Staff, 10/24/2002

The two sides in the battle over the bilingual education ballot initiative sparred yesterday over dollars, with
opponents charging English immersion will result in millions in new expenses, and supporters saying the effort
can be done with existing money.

Opponents of Question 2 said the measure would stick the state with $125 million in expenses over two years to train
teachers in English immersion, buy new classroom materials, and help students who can't be promoted to the next
grade because of poor English skills.

''If people want to vote for immersion, let them do it. But let them know what the choices are,'' said Roger Rice, a
member of the Committee for Fairness to Children and Teachers, the leading opponent of Question 2. ''There are
real costs to be borne.''

But ballot initiative leaders denounced the estimates as ''cooking the books.'' They said the costs would consist of little
more than retraining teachers because everything that school districts spend on bilingual programs could simply move
to English immersion classes.

''In the vast majority of cases, we would be shifting the focus of expenses from native-language instruction to English,''
said Lincoln Tamayo, chairman of English for the Children of Massachusetts, the group backing Question 2. ''They're
talking about additional costs for programs that are already in place.''

Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said the costs of English immersion remain
murky. He agreed that Massachusetts could expect an initial price tag of about $30 million to retrain thousands of
teachers in immersion. But beyond that, expenses are unclear. The group has not conducted its own analysis.

''There's a big gray area here,'' Widmer said. ''Estimates of how much the cost will be on an ongoing basis are really
driven entirely by the success or not of the new program.''

Question 2, financed by Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz, would replace bilingual education classes with English
immersion classes. Currently, Massachusetts' 39,000 bilingual students take courses in their native tongues while
easing into English over a period of months or years. Others, including Unz, say immersing students in English from
day one is the better method of teaching young children the language.

Unz's measure passed in California in 1998 and Arizona in 2000. Robert Linquanti, who is codirecting a five-year
evaluation of the initiative by the American Institutes for Research and the nonprofit agency WestEd for the California
Legislature, said he has seen no study detailing the cost of the measure in that state.

Anecdotal evidence from California suggests that costs came from training teachers in English immersion techniques
and buying more English-language textbooks, among other things. But how much districts spent often depended on
how closely they followed the Unz measure, under which waivers can be requested to stay in bilingual classes.

The Committee for Fairness to Children and Teachers released its findings yesterday at a senior citizens center in
Chinatown, arguing that the cost of English immersion would burden the state at a time when services for seniors and
for other social service agencies are being slashed in the state budget.

Members who worked on the report include Rice, a lawyer with Multicultural Education Training and Advocacy in
Somerville; Boston public school officials; and education professors from Boston College, Salem State College, and
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Estimates were drawn largely from per-student costs for bilingual education
and other state data.

For example, training teachers and buying new materials before the 2003-04 school year would be about $24.7
million in all grades and all subjects, although that assumes that no students will obtain waivers to stay in bilingual
education under teachers they already have who don't need immersion training.

The next year, officials projected a $21.6 million price tag. That encompasses what the state spends on educating its
bilingual students, about $9,300 a year per student. But the figure also includes limited-English students, who
currently receive less help and cost slightly less to educate. Committee officials said they applied the higher
per-student cost to them because they presumably would enter an immersion classroom, which would be more
expensive.

Tamayo, however, disputed that assumption. Most limited-English students who aren't in full-fledged bilingual
programs get pulled out for English teaching or are in ''English-as-a-second-language'' programs. He said Question 2
would allow ESL classes to exist - meaning those students would not cost any more to educate than they do now.

Other costs in the second year and beyond were projected at $78.6 million: Officials used local and California
statistics to guess how many students would not leave immersion after one year, and said more students would repeat
grades after not learning English quickly enough.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 10/24/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

 

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