Original URL: http://www.masslive.com/news/unionnews/index.ssf?/base/news-2/1035360604117312.xml

English learning law proceeds despite pending referendum vote

The regulations being drafted will be moot if the voter referendum on bilingual education is passed.
Union_News Staff writer

SPRINGFIELD - With a referendum on a proposal to wipe out bilingual education just weeks away from a vote, state education officials have begun to set up a system to teach nonEnglish language speaking students under a new law.

State Board of Education members agreed unanimously yesterday to ask for public input on proposed regulations for the law passed in July.

The proposal, a mere three pages long, is intentionally short because the law is so specific, according to board Chairman James A. Peyser.

"It's a minimalist structure. You need to think of these regulations in the context of the statute," Peyser said.

Casting a shadow over the process is the voter referendum that will essentially wipe out the old transitional bilingual program and the new, so-called "English language learners" program that shortens the timespan of transition to English to two years. Polls predict passage of the referendum.

The voter mandate would give students just one year of guided immersion to move from their first language to English.

The law passed in July represents a program overhaul that sponsors hope will persuade voters to reject the question on the Nov. 5 ballot sponsored by California millionaire Ronald K. Unz.

The current law in Massachusetts allows most non-English speaking students to be taught subjects in their native languages before being funneled to regular classes. The average student spends three years in special classes.

Yesterday, board members quietly agreed on a set of regulations that may soon be outdated.

They require districts to keep track of English language learners, and to assess their abilities in English and other academic areas within 10 days of their enrollment in school.

The regulations also require districts to file plans with the state every three years, starting on June 30, detailing how it will meet the needs of English language learners. That approach will be monitored by the state.

English language learners will be in classes of no more than 20 students unless a teacher aide is present, which could boost class size to a maximum of 25.

Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll said the department feels compelled to work on the regulations regardless of the Nov. 5 ballot question. The current timetable calls for a public comment period to run through the fall, and regulations to take effect in January.

One parent who attended the meeting said she supports the ballot question rather than the law.

"One-year immersion is a step in the right direction," said Ellen L. Ray, a resident of Nantucket and the mother of two schoolchildren.

"Students can learn English rapidly and then quickly begin learning in other classes with other children," she said.

Many educators oppose the ballot question, however.

One is Springfield Superintendent Joseph P. Burke, who heads a system that has implemented a new program that lines up with the law passed in July.

"The new law is doable, and it will help the bilingual program tremendously. It gives local districts sufficient latitude to make programs and monitor students," he said.

Mary Ellen O'Shea may be contacted at


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