Labor, community fight anti-bilingual drive

BOSTON – “We don’t need a California business magnate to come to Massachusetts and tell us how to educate our children,” Kathleen Kelly, president of the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers, said, expressing the sentiments of a coalition opposed to Question 2, an anti-bilingual education referendum on the November ballot.

The drive to end bilingual education is being financed by Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley millionaire who also funded anti-bilingual education referendums in California and Arizona.

The Massachusetts Committee for Fairness to Children and Teachers (FACT), composed of teachers, parents, labor unions, public officials and community groups united in the effort to turn back the anti-bilingual education referendum on the November ballot, says that Unz’ new initiative in Massachusetts is more draconian than the previous referendums in California and Arizona.

If it passes, the new law would provide for one year of English immersion, after which students would be mainstreamed into regular classes. The proposed new law would also allow for teachers and other school officials to be sued if they implement any form of bilingual education to help non-English speaking or limited English proficiency students to learn any school subject in their own language.

Kelly noted that in California, “After one year of English immersion, only 7.8 percent of the bilingual students were certified as fluent.”

Unz is also the financial backer of a similar proposition that would change the constitution of Colorado and prohibit the use of any other language for public school instruction. The Colorado referendum would also make teachers and other school employees liable if they use bilingual education methods for teaching. A coalition similar to the one in Massachusetts is fighting to stop the Colorado referendum.

In Lawrence, the only Massachusetts city with a Latin American majority, José Balbuena, for president of the School Department’s Parent Advisory Council, told the World, “The elimination of bilingual education would hurt us all.” He said he feared that some youth would turn to crime without a good education. He said the movement was racist and would not contribute to learning.

Balbuena, who was a candidate for School Committee, said the bilingual educational system needs to be fixed not discarded.

Even critics of bilingual education have termed the Unz initiative as too extreme. Wilfredo Laboy, Lawrence school superintendent said that he refuses calls from Unz. Laboy favors English immersion but with more safeguards.

According to Denis O’Leary of the League of United Latin American Citizens, “Students who were promised to be English language fluent at the end of the 1998-1999 school year are now entering the 2002-2003 school year without having becoming English fluent.”

O’Leary continued, “For the fourth straight year the achievement gap between English only speaking students and those who haven’t mastered English has widened. Many children are repeating their fifth year of what was promised to be a one year program of English immersion. Children are failing to become fluent in the English language and according to … test scores they are being left behind academically.”

The author can be reached at jacruz@attbi.com