Massachusetts Ballot Initiative Would Require English-Only Classes

The first-grade class at the Josiah Quincy School in Boston's Chinatown is typical of the Massachusetts school system's use of bilingual education. None of the kids speaks English fluently so their teacher instructs mostly in Mandarin Chinese with some translation.

But some in Massachusetts want to change the way the system works. They say the current bilingual education program keeps kids from achieving.

Bilingual education classes are the product of a 1972 law mandating that immigrant children be taught in their native languages for three to seven years before being funneled into classes with English-speaking students. The framers believed it would be too difficult for kids to learn complex subjects like math in anything but their own languages. Currently, about 44,000 students participate in limited English proficiency classes.

But opponents of the system want to repeal the law and start immersing kids in English sooner rather than later. Voters will decide in November when a ballot initiative asks them to choose whether foreign language-speaking students should be put into one year of intensive English immersion classes before being funneled into the regular class system.

"The foundation of success in this nation is the ability to have command of English in short order," said Lincoln Tamayo, head of the group English for the Children of Massachusetts and a former high school principal, who is spearheading the ballot initiative.

California and Arizona already have adopted similar programs and have seen test scores rise. Test scores in Massachusetts show that 42 percent of fourth-grade limited English-proficiency students failed the statewide assessment exam in 2001. Fifty-three percent of that same group failed the mathematics portion of the exam.

The principal at Josiah Quincy School is opposed to the initiative, however. She said asking kids to check their native language at the door hurts their self-esteem.

"We keep saying to them, 'What you have at home, your culture and your language is not good enough,'" principal Suzanne Lee said.

Tamayo said he thinks keeping kids dependent on their foreign language is not good enough for them.

"We somehow believe that because a child comes to us with a different color skin, or they come to us with an accent or they come to us with relative economic poverty, that they are not capable of achieving at the same levels as children do in suburbs."

The Massachusetts Legislature will soon propose an alternative to the initiative — a bill that would allow schools to pick and choose from a range of English-teaching methods. It's a middle ground that educators predict will not satisfy many parents or students.