State lawmakers straying from English immersion ballot question

Current law requires students receive all instruction in English, with few exceptions

BOSTON (State House News Service) – Senators on Thursday plan to vote on legislation upending a 2002 ballot law that requires English-immersion instruction for public school students, including those not yet fluent in the nation’s predominant language.

The bill backed by Everett Democrat Sen. Sal DiDomenico does away with the requirement that “absent a waiver all students must be taught in English and through sheltered English immersion,” according to a summary.

Under the bill, English language learners would be educated “through comprehensive, research-based instructional programming that includes subject matter content and an English language acquisition component,” the summary said.

Bill would create more flexibility for students learning English

Lincoln Tamayo, who led the successful ballot campaign and now heads up a tuition-free private school in Tampa, Florida, said he was saddened by the move that he said would deprive young non-native speakers of opportunities to soak up the “language of success” in classrooms throughout the school day.

“That’s a disaster for any child under the age of 10. We are wired as human beings to acquire language. And the younger we are, the way our brains are wired, we can acquire a language other than what we first heard coming out of our mother’s womb,” Tamayo told the News Service.

Rep. Alice Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat who is House chairwoman of the Education Committee, said the English immersion requirement has not resulted in better outcomes for English language learners.

“Over the past almost 15 years since that ballot question passed, we have not seen much progress with English language learners,” Peisch told the News Service. She said, “It certainly does not seem to me to have delivered on the promise of the people who pushed it.”

The House passed its own version of the bill (H 3740/S 2125) in June. Both the House and Senate last year passed similar bills but were unable to agree on language to send to the governor, and both branches are getting a much earlier start on the legislation this session.

The House sponsor of the bill is Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez, a Jamaica Plain Democrat who became chairman of the powerful House Committee on Ways and Means last week.

Funded by Californian Ron Unz, the ballot question passed 68-32 in 2002, mandating 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,” according to a summary of the question.

Tamayo, who once worked as a school principal in the largely Latino city of Chelsea, said that before the ballot law, Massachusetts public schools didn’t tap into young students’ capacity for learning English through immersion.

“We were creating education programs that were stunting the ability of our children to acquire as quickly as possible the language of success in our country,” Tamayo said. He said, “We were creating Spanish and Portuguese education ghettos in our public schools. I don’t know why we’re even thinking of going back to that situation again.”

Tamayo came to the United States from Cuba as a youngster, spoke Spanish at home and learned English at school. Tamayo, who said he is still fluent in Spanish, is the head of school at the Academy Prep Center of Tampa, where students are educated six days a week and 11 months of the year with most school days running from 7 a.m. to 6:05 p.m., Tamayo said. He said English immersion has been successful at his school.

Under the Senate Ways and Means bill, parents would be permitted to opt out of an English learner program and certain school districts that run language acquisition programs would need to establish English learner parent advisory councils, according to a summary.

School districts would need to inform the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education about opportunities for non-native English speakers to develop proficiency in their native language, according to the summary.

Last November, California voters rolled back much of a 1998 law that had required English immersion education, according to the Los Angeles Times.