Massachusetts and Colorado Next for Bilingual Reform

Published December 1, 2001

As the bilingual education reform movement builds momentum around the country, activists are preparing for two major statewide ballot initiatives in 2002.

In Massachusetts and Colorado, campaigns are moving forward to replace bilingual education with new one-year English immersion programs. California was the first state to do so, in 1998, followed by Arizona in 2000.

Debate Launches Campaign

Massachusetts’ English for the Children campaign got underway on October 16 with a debate at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education between bilingual reform pioneer Ron Unz and Shattuck Professor of Education Catherine Snow.

A lively, standing-room-only crowd was “openly hostile” to Unz as he presented his case. He explained that over one million immigrant children in California had improved their test scores by over 50 percent since the initiative he spearheaded eliminated bilingual education there.

Snow dismissed the rise in test scores, attributing them to smaller class sizes and increased school funding.

“We don’t need California’s initiatives to solve Massachusetts’ educational problems,” she declared.

At the time this article was written, supporters of the Massachusetts initiative had collected more than 65,000 signatures and planned to submit twice the 57,000 required before the November 21 deadline. They have also scheduled four additional debates around the state.

Massachusetts law requires schools to offer “transitional bilingual education programs” when at least 20 students in a district speak the same non-English native language. Over 45,000 English learners are currently enrolled in such programs. But state law does not stipulate the classes be transitional in anything but name: There is no requirement that they graduate a single child into mainstream classes. An October 2001 study by the Lexington Institute found transition rates were often extremely low in the programs that were examined.

“There is deep dissatisfaction with the way limited-English kids have been educated in Massachusetts over the past 30 years, said initiative co-chair Dr. Rosalie Porter. “I’ve seen the disappointing results of native-language programs as a classroom teacher, program director, and researcher. Now, with bilingual students required to take the statewide reading, writing, and math tests for the first time–along with all other students–we know that bilingual education has to change.”

Colorado Reformers Renew Efforts

Meanwhile, organizers of the Colorado initiative are underway with a proposition of their own.

After an 11th-hour rejection on technical grounds by the Colorado Supreme Court in 2000, Centennial State reformers are now gearing up a new campaign chaired by Unz and former Denver School Board member Rita Montero.

Colorado has approximately 52,000 English learners, one-third of whom attend the Denver Public Schools. Nine out of ten are native Spanish speakers. Bilingual programs, used in one in four Colorado school districts, vary in methodology but share a common reliance on segregated instruction in students’ non-English native language.

Denver schools are operating under a federal court-approved plan to limit the amount of time students spend in bilingual classes to three years. The new policy has not been in effect long enough to judge its effectiveness, but many reformers are skeptical it is achieving its goal.

“Throughout most of the country, advocates of bilingual education falsely claim that they support a three-year limit to the program,” said Unz. “But when Denver School Board Member Rita Montero and her colleagues actually tried to enact a three-year limit, they were viciously attacked as acting contrary to all the existing bilingual education research, which demands that the program last at least five to seven years.

“Now,” he predicted, “Colorado’s bilingual programs are headed for the trash can of history.”

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute. Copies of the Massachusetts study, “Federal Bilingual Education Programs in Massachusetts: ‘But Do They Help the Children?'” can be obtained by emailing [email protected].