Mass. Lawmakers Scramble to Preempt Voter Initiative

Published July 1, 2001

Perhaps hearing the footsteps of a possible statewide bilingual education reform initiative approaching in their not-too-distant future, Massachusetts policymakers have hurried to pass reform measures they can point to as meaningful, thus preempting a citizen initiative. On May 15, the state legislature’s Joint Education Committee held hearings to examine three legislative proposals currently under consideration.

Massachusetts law requires schools to offer bilingual education when at least 20 students in the district speak the same, non-English native language.

This spring, Dr. Rosalie Porter, a member of the Massachusetts Governor’s Education Reform Review Commission, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives that Limited English Proficient students scored lower than mainstream students on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) in all subjects and at all grade levels tested.

In an August 2000 READ Institute study she coauthored, Porter reported only one school district in the state had English learners who outscored mainstream students on any portion of the test: Chelsea fourth-grade English learners scored two points higher in math. Porter’s study, “Bilingual Students and the MCAS: Some Bright Spots in the Gloom,” also uncovered a number of significant problems in the Massachusetts Department of Education’s data collection and reporting pertaining to English learners.

At the state House hearings, Senator Guy Glodis (D-Worcester) vigorously defended a proposal he authored, which would effectively end transitional bilingual education altogether in the Commonwealth and replace it with one-year intensive English immersion programs.

“Our children are not learning English because they are not being taught in English,” Glodis testified. “The current system is not working. It’s a disaster.”

Glodis modeled his bill on laws approved as ballot referenda in California in 1998 and Arizona in 2000. The original 1998 legislation was written by California software entrepreneur Ron Unz, who led the initiatives in both states. Glodis has been in contact with Unz about a possible Massachusetts campaign and Unz–a Harvard University graduate–has indicated he would consider getting involved in such an effort.

House Minority Whip Mary Rogeness (R-Longmeadow) spoke on behalf of legislation she has sponsored that would require school districts to obtain parental consent before placing students in transitional bilingual education programs. Her proposal also would require bilingual teachers to be fluent in English and ease current state laws requiring districts to offer bilingual education.

However, it was the proposal from Representative Antonio Cabral (D-New Bedford) that received the widest praise from the hearing’s participants. Touted as a “compromise” plan, its centerpiece calls for the creation of a new “bilingual structured immersion” education model for English learners as an alternative for school districts and parents. Instead of the English immersion programs implemented in California, Arizona, and elsewhere, the Cabral model would essentially mandate bilingual immersion where “30 percent of the day shall be conducted in the native [non-English] language of the student.”

Reform advocates were heartened by the Cabral plan’s insistence that school districts improve accountability for results and annually monitor the progress of Limited English Proficient students towards English fluency. State Commissioner of Education David Driscoll endorsed the bill, citing Cabral’s understanding of the need to improve current bilingual programs and his apparent willingness to work with reformers to produce a bill acceptable to all sides.

But Glodis, who has raised the possibility of a 2002 ballot referendum to abolish bilingual education, was not impressed. Calling Cabral’s proposal “a token attempt by the liberal left to appease real reformers,” Glodis told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette he was convinced there is “broad appeal” for such a referendum.

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute. His email address is [email protected].

For more information . . .

The READ Institute study is available online at