Boston Globe

Thursday, June 4, 1998

Bilingual Classes Expected To Be Hot Issue Here
Advocates in Mass. defend program
By JORDANA HART, Globe Staff

The vote in California to dismantle bilingual education could not be duplicated in Massachusetts, advocates of bilingual programs here said yesterday. But state officials said it will be a major issue in the Legislature next year.

The California vote ends the country's largest bilingual education system within 60 days and replaces it with a one-year English immersion program.

''What happened in California is not based on fact, but on personal feelings and fear,'' said Sandra Alvarado, director of the Latino Parents Association in Boston. ''The reality is those children will not learn in a year. They will sink or swim. We will not let that happen here.''

Massachusetts has more than 44,000 bilingual-education students, more than 10,000 in Boston, according to state data.

Like many advocates, Alvarado's group supports transitional education in which children learn English while also learning math, history, and other subjects in their own language until they can understand enough English - usually in three to five years.

However, one longtime critic of the transitional bilingual education said that drastic change is vital here and across the country because too many children are failing to learn English or excel under the current method.

''Kids need to learn English if they are to have decent-paying jobs,'' said Abigail Thernstrom, a member of the Massachusetts Board of Education.

Thernstrom described herself as a longtime friend of Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, who led Proposition 227 drive to overturn California's 30-year-old bilingual education system.

Last year, the Massachusetts Board of Education voted to allow districts to increase bilingual class sizes, end bilingual parent groups, and no longer require districts to hire certified bilingual education directors.

A bill filed last year by Governor William F. Weld that would remove non-English speaking students from bilingual programs after three years remains in a study committee, where it has been for a year.

Senator Robert Antonioni, a Leominster Democrat who cochairs the Legislature's education committee, said bilingual education will be a major issue before lawmakers in January when the new session begins. The California vote ''puts it on the radar screen. I know Chairman Silber advocates immersion as the only way to go, but dealing in absolutes does not serve us well.''

John Silber, who is chairman of the state Board of Education, was traveling yesterday and unavailable for comment.