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Schools seek to phase in English Immersion called too costly for fall

By Anand Vaishnav, Globe Staff, 1/23/2003

Nineteen of Massachusetts' biggest school systems yesterday asked state officials for a delay in immersing all of their bilingual students into English-only classes, arguing that the voter-approved initiative is too costly and too complicated to begin this fall.

In a letter to Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, the school systems asked that English immersion programs be phased in over three years. After a rancorous campaign,voters in November overwhelmingly replaced bilingual programs with one-year, all-English classes in Massachusetts public schools.

But the superintendents' request could be the first clash in the battle between Governor Mitt Romney, who vows to implement immersion, and the predominantly Democratic Legislature, whose members hope to water down some or all of the initiative.

In addition, the unified front of superintendents who fought the immersion ballot question seems to be cracking, as three heavily minority cities - Boston, Chelsea, and Holyoke - did not sign the letter, although leaders there have supported the option of bilingual education.

''I would rather be prepared to implement Question 2 as best we can  in September rather than assume that it won't happen and then be told in September, `You didn't plan ahead,''' Boston Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant said.

Still, the 19 members of the Urban Superintendents' Network said they have strong reasons to push for a delay: They said there is neither time nor money to train their staffs, either to teach English immersion effectively or to handle the influx of students expected to enter mainstream classrooms after just a year in immersion.

Lowell Superintendent Karla Brooks Baehr, a leader of the superintendents' group, said her colleagues made the request after Healey encouraged them to suggest regulations that could be eased to save money.

''The question now under very challenging budget circumstances is how fast can we do it well enough for kids,'' Baehr said. ''If we knew we could phase this in over a two- or three-year period, for many of us, we think we'd be able to do a much better job.''

Yesterday, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, who backed the immersion initiative in Massachusetts, derided a delay as ''completely fraudulent.''

In addition, the request is not likely to get far with the Romney administration. ''The people of Massachusetts were very clear in voting to teach English to kids, and the governor and the lieutenant governor have every intention of implementing the will of the people,'' spokeswoman Shawn Feddeman said.

Bilingual education, which many schools taught for three decades, is the practice of teaching non-English-speaking children in their native tongues and easing them into English. Immersion is the opposite: surrounding immigrant students in all-English classes with only token amounts of their native language.

The superintendents have won support from Representative Peter J. Larkin, a Pittsfield Democrat, and Senator Robert A. Antonioni, a Leominster Democrat. Both cochair the Legislature's joint education committee.

''Even if the governor were to veto this, my guess is there would be sufficient numbers in both branches to override any veto,'' said Antonioni. ''I'm not sure his leverage on this issue is such that it would prevent the Legislature from lending a sympathetic ear to those who actually have to make this question work.''

What Question 2 will cost is unclear. Pro-bilingual activists last year pegged the statewide price tag at $125 million, but superintendents in several districts said they haven't analyzed the expense yet because much depends on what the state Department of Education will require. The DOE is expected to unveil regulations on Question 2 next week.

Payzant estimated that it would cost about $5 million in Boston if the state doesn't require school systems to pick up the cost of training teachers. In California and Arizona - two states that successfully passed the Unz initiative - education specialists yesterday said they did not know of any valid studies of immersion's
costs there. They said some school systems spent more on English-language textbooks and materials, and on training regular-education teachers who were unaccustomed to having non-English speakers join their classrooms.

Revere Superintendent Paul Dakin, who favors a phasing in of the change, said he fears having to eliminate teacher training in other areas to make way for immersion. ''We're not trying to dodge the mandate,'' he said. ''We're trying to make it more fiscally and humanly possible.''

School systems seeking a delay are Brockton, Cambridge, Chicopee, Fall River, Fitchburg, Framingham, Haverhill, Lawrence, Leominster, Lowell, Lynn, Malden, New Bedford, Pittsfield, Revere, Somerville, Springfield, Taunton, and Worcester.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 1/23/2003. Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.