MetroWest Daily News 

Smith rips bilingual plan

By Michael Kunzelman
Friday, September 27, 2002

BOSTON - A ballot question aimed at eliminating the state's bilingual education program would have "catastrophic" consequences for the state's public schools, Framingham schools superintendent Mark Smith said yesterday.

At a forum sponsored by opponents of the question, Smith lashed out at Mitt Romney for supporting the "Unz initiative," which would replace the state's three-year bilingual system with one-year English immersion.

Smith said it was "intellectually dishonest and ignorant" for Romney, the Republican candidate for governor, to say in one of his television ads that bilingual education in Massachusetts is a "failed idea."

"Every time I see (the ad), I practically want to break the (television) set," Smith said. "That's so wrong that it almost raises the question of intellectual integrity."

Smith speaks from experience. Of 8,700 students in Framingham schools, 1,500, or 17 percent, are in bilingual programs.

"Our (bilingual students') test scores were twice as good as the California students that Mr. Unz argues ought to be the basis for making this catastrophic decision," Smith said yesterday.

Ronald Unz is a California businessman who has sponsored and bankrolled similar ballot initiatives which passed in California and Arizona, and are on this year's ballots in Massachusetts and Colorado.

The proposal is ballot Question 2 in the Nov. 5 election, in which Romney is running against Democrat Shannon O'Brien, who opposes the Unz plan.

Eric Fehrnstrom, a spokesman for the Romney campaign, said Romney, who lives in Belmont, believes the state's bilingual education program is "wasteful and broken."

"Mitt Romney cares about our children," Fehrnstrom said. "He thinks our young people would be better served by moving to a one-year English immersion program."

The Anti-Defamation League of New England, which hosted yesterday's forum at a Boston law office, presented Smith with an award honoring his efforts to fight school discrimination and hate crimes.

This fall, the Framingham schools became the first district in the state to implement a systemwide peer training program aimed at curbing racial and religious discrimination.

"You have no idea what a difference his values and direction have made for the children of Framingham," state Rep. Deborah Blumer, D-Framingham, told the gathering. "It's a place that's open to all our children and families, and we want to keep it that way."

Smith announced Monday that he will retire from the Framingham schools at the end of the school year.

The ADL also praised Smith for his outspoken opposition to the Unz initiative, which a fellow panelist called "racist and discriminatory."

"(Unz) wants to make a historical statement by eliminating bilingual education in this state, and he's doing it in a very crafty way," added Giovanna Negretti of Oiste! a grass-roots Latino political action group.

Smith said Framingham's bilingual education program offers parents five choices.

Smith said under Unz's plan, "There's only one thing you can do - put students in a one-year English immersion class - and then it's sink or swim and they're on their own."

Lincoln Tamayo, a former Chelsea High School principal now leading the push for the ballot question, bristled at the assertion that the initiative is racially motivated.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," said Tamayo, a native of Cuba. "The overwhelming majority of the electorate and the overwhelming majority of immigrant parents believe that the best way to learn a second language is to be immersed in it."

Opponents of the Unz plan claim the question's language would allow teachers to be sued for teaching students in their native tongue.

Fehrnstrom said Romney, if elected, would work with the Legislature to remove that "punitive feature."

Tamayo, for his part, said worries about lawsuits are unwarranted. No California teachers have been sued for teaching in a student's native language since the law passed there in 1998, he said.