Massachusetts Next for Bilingual Reform?

Published May 1, 2001

The introduction of separate bilingual education reform proposals by two prominent Massachusetts lawmakers has sparked speculation that the Commonwealth may become the newest addition to a growing list of states that have undertaken major reform of bilingual programs.

In February, State Senator Guy W. Glodis (D-Worcester) reintroduced a bill, modeled after California’s Proposition 227, to replace bilingual education with a one-year, structured English immersion approach. The same bill had died on the Senate floor last year.

Assistant Minority Whip Mary S. Rogeness (R-Longmeadow) has filed her own proposal aimed at achieving a more rapid transition of bilingual students into mainstream classrooms taught in English. Her proposal would require parental consent before placing a student in bilingual education, mandate that teachers of bilingual education be proficient in English, and delete the current state requirement that bilingual programs include a focus on the history and culture of students’ native countries. The Rogeness bill has 11 cosponsors in the state House and Senate.

Current Massachusetts law requires that school districts with 20 or more Limited-English Proficient students who speak the same language must implement transitional bilingual education programs. Ron Unz, the California software executive from MIT who led bilingual reform campaigns in California and Arizona, has suggested he might get involved with a similar initiative in Massachusetts.

In 1999, the Massachusetts Board of Education passed a rule requiring that English learners be tested in English on the Iowa Reading Test in their third consecutive year in U.S. schools. At that time, Board chairman John Silber noted that, with a good bilingual program, English learners should be fully fluent in English by the time they get to the second grade.

“If they fail in the second grade, they ought to be kept back,” said Silber.