Original URL: http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/056/metro/English_only_lawsuit_provision_debated+.shtml

Romney pledge focus of debate
Globe Staff, 2/25/2003
By Anand Vaishnav

Despite Governor Mitt Romney's campaign promises, his administration appears divided over whether to nullify a portion of
Massachusetts's new English-immersion law that lets parents sue teachers for refusing to abide by English-only classes.

The state Board of Education is expected to get its first look today at the regulations that broadly sketch how schools should replace bilingual education with all-English classes -- an action that voters overwhelmingly passed last November. The ballot initiative, Question 2, also lets parents sue school employees who ''willfully and repeatedly'' refuse to immerse immigrant students in English.

But the draft regulations keep the lawsuit provision intact, despite Romney's vow during his campaign to water down a measure he labeled ''punitive.'' The political and educational wings of his administration seem to disagree about whether the plank can and should be voided.

James A. Peyser, an education official in Romney's administration who also chairs the state Board of Education, said the governor is confident that schools can implement immersion well and avoid lawsuits entirely.

''We don't think it's necessary to put regulations in place,'' Peyser said. ''He's convinced at this point that if it's implemented well, and if the department administers it properly, that lawsuit section will effectively be removed.''

Peyser added that regulations cannot contradict their own law, which Question 2 became after it passed with 68 percent of the vote.

But Eric Fehrnstrom, communications director for Romney, said the governor has not backed off his promise to dilute the lawsuit language. After being submitted to the state Board of Education today, the regulations will be made available for public comment, with the board's final vote coming in April.

''These are draft regulations, and as such, they mark the beginning of the process,'' Fehrnstrom said. ''Our view is that they can be improved by adding language that will make it virtually impossible for parents to sue teachers. The governor's office will be in touch with [Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll's] office to suggest changes along these lines.''

Those who fought to keep bilingual education said Romney would renege on his word if he did not work to rid Question 2 of the lawsuit provision. ''That's clearly what the governor promised and what everyone was counting on,'' said Tim Duncan, former chairman of the Committee for Fairness to Children and Teachers, which battled the immersion initiative. ''That was one thing the public felt clearly about, that teachers shouldn't be sued.''

For three decades, Massachusetts instructed many non-English speakers in bilingual education, or the practice of teaching students in their native tongues while slowly easing them into English. But Question 2, partly financed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, replaces that with all-English classes and requires students to move to mainstream courses after a year, with some exceptions.

One of the most controversial parts of Question 2 was a provision letting school employees be held liable if they refused to implement immersion. The Unz initiative passed in California in 1998 and Arizona in 2000 with similar lawsuit provisions, but no teacher has been sued.

Rosalie Pedalino Porter, chairwoman of English for the Children, Unz's Massachusetts campaign, said she takes a ''middle of the road'' view on the lawsuit plank and said it doesn't have to be kept.

''As long as there's a serious effort by the state to see that towns actually make the changes, then I'm not concerned about the other piece,'' said Porter, a consultant and former bilingual education director for Newton public schools.

This story ran on page B2 of the Boston Globe on 2/25/2003. Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.