Bilingual ed advocates marshal forces

State House rally sparks war of words

By Anand Vaishnav, Globe Staff, 10/1/2002

n a demonstration on the State House steps, supporters of bilingual education yesterday issued a call to defeat an emotionally charged ballot measure that would replace bilingual programs with English

More than 30 people hoisting signs reading ''Don't sue teachers'' - referring to one of the most heated planks of the ballot initiative - yesterday denounced the measure as ''hateful,'' ''spiteful,'' and an ''attack on American values.'' Question 2 would replace bilingual programs in Massachusetts with English immersion courses intended to last a year, with exceptions, and is backed by California businessman Ron Unz.

Despite recent polls showing support for the initiative, bilingual education backers plan to spend the weeks before the Nov. 5 election at rallies and forums telling voters that Question 2 would usurp control from school systems to educate limited-English students. Yesterday's news conference featured traditional backers of bilingual education, such as teachers' unions and minority groups, but there was at least one surprise: State Representative Marie P. St. Fleur of Dorchester, who has voiced previous support for immersion in younger grades.

''We have to have alternative methods because we do not all come to these shores the same way,'' said St. Fleur, originally from Haiti.

The event also showed how fierce the bilingual education debate has become. One speaker, Gerardo
Villacres, executive director of the Hispanic-American Chamber of Commerce, said of Unz, ''Half of the
words in his name say Nazi on it, and that says a lot.'' He later retracted the remark, and other bilingual supporters disavowed it.

Unz, who is Jewish, dismissed Villacres's comment. Instead, he seized on something else Villacres said: that his son learned English in preschool within three months and didn't need bilingual education, although acknowledging that others might.

''He is basically proving the point for our case,'' said Unz, who has funded similar successful initiatives in California and Arizona. ''People on the `no' side say, `Well, I learned English quickly in a few months, and my son did, and my cousin did, but other people can't.'''

Lincoln Tamayo, leader of Unz's Massachusetts campaign, made himself available to the media yesterday too, setting up a few feet away from his opponents. Assertions that Unz is not a parent and has spent no time in Massachusetts schools have nothing to do with how best to teach the state's roughly 39,000 bilingual-education students, Tamayo said.

''The overwhelming majority of young immigrant children are capable of learning English in very short order,'' said Tamayo, adding that Question 2 allows waivers for disabled students and children older than 10 to remain in immersion courses for longer than a year.

Yesterday, Unz accepted the Massachusetts Teachers Association's challenge to visit a bilingual classroom. The average stay for students in a Massachusetts bilingual education classroom is two and a half years.

Both sides also drew the two major party gubernatorial candidates into the debate. Bilingual supporters challenged Republican candidate Mitt Romney's support of Question 2 despite evidence from California questioning its effectiveness. Statistics show that just 7.8 percent of limited-English students in California were ''redesignated'' as fluent in English last year, despite immersion classes. While test scores for limited-Englishstudents have risen, the achievement gap between them and English-speaking peers has widened.

Romney's deputy campaign manager, Eric Fehrnstrom, referred questions on statistics to Tamayo. But
Fehrnstrom said, ''Mitt Romney cares about our children, and not teaching them English is like hanging a millstone around their necks.''

Tamayo said the California redesignation rates are unreliable because each district sets its own reclassification criteria. He pointed to a new test in California showing that about 25 percent of limited-English students score in the top two levels of the exam, suggesting that the reclassification rate is artificially low.

Tamayo said school districts have an incentive to have limited-English students because the districts get additional funding. He added that Democrat Shannon O'Brien's support of bilingual education stemmed from her being ''welded to the hips to the leadership of teachers' unions.''

O'Brien's spokesman, Adrian Durbin, said the gubernatorial candidate supports a new law tightening bilingual education programs that promises more accountability than Unz's question.

''That shows her commitment to making sure our bilingual education system works,'' Durbin said.

This story ran on page B2 of the Boston Globe on 10/1/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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