Bill would create more flexibility for students learning English

Bilingual education system was overhauled following 2002 vote

BOSTON (State House News Service) – A bill expected to be taken up by the House Wednesday would give Massachusetts school districts more flexibility over methods they use to educate students who are learning English, according to the chairwoman of the Education Committee.

Rep. Alice Peisch, whose committee endorsed the bill (H 3705) last month, said schools are now required to teach English language learners through what’s called “sheltered immersion,” with classes taught primarily in English. The bill, an Education Committee redraft of legislation filed by Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, would allow districts to submit their own plans to state education officials for approval, Peisch said.

“When you look at the English language learner population, they’re not all the same, so what might work for a very young group of students that may be literate in their own language is not necessarily the right option for an older group of students who have come from a country where they did not have any significant educational opportunities, so they’re not literate,” Peisch told the News Service. “Learning a second language and learning to read, period, is a real challenge, so it’s designed to give districts the ability to design programs that fit the needs of their students.”

The Wellesley Democrat said the bill also slightly expands a waiver process through which parents can choose not to have their children participate in sheltered English immersion programs and updates data collection around the performance of English language learners to address questions “about whether the data that’s collected is really relevant to helping policymakers understand what we need to do to improve the performance of those students.”

In 2002, Massachusetts voters by a 61-29 percent margin passed a ballot law replacing the state law providing for transitional bilingual education in public schools with a law requiring that, “with limited exceptions, all public school children must be taught English by being taught all subjects in English and being placed in English language classrooms.”

Supporters of that law called bilingual education a “failed experiment” and said the new law would help immigrant students by teaching them English as quickly as possible. Opponents of the ballot law said it would allow teachers to be personally sued for using a child’s native language to help them learn and said the ballot question was rooted in “hateful and spiteful” views toward immigrants.

A version of the bill before the House Wednesday passed both branches last summer, but lawmakers failed to reconcile the differing versions and never sent a bill to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk. Lawmakers didn’t take the bill up until late in the last two-year session. The Senate last year unanimously passed its version of the bill in early July 2016. The House passed its bill at 9:20 p.m. on July 31, the final day of formal legislative sessions for the term.

The House Ways and Means Committee on Monday asked its members to vote on the bill by the following morning.

A similar bill (S 2070), based on legislation filed by Sen. Sal DiDomenico, is before the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Wednesday’s House session begins at 11 a.m. with recorded votes set to begin at 1 p.m. after Democrats gather for a closed-door caucus.

[Michael P. Norton contributed reporting]