Bilingualism, Si, English Immersion, No

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BOSTON — The Massachusetts Senate on Thursday again took a step towards undoing a 2002 ballot initiative mandating English language immersion in public schools, voting in a 39-0 landslide to pass a measure dumping the requirement that all Bay State students must be taught in English unless districts first obtain a waiver.

Both wings of the Legislature passed versions of the bill last year, but an inability between the House and the Senate to agree on language prevented the bill from reaching Governor Charlie Baker’s desk.

The House passed its version last month. Thursday’s vote saw Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester) introduce a pair of amendments directing school districts to report on their approaches to teaching United States history and civics, pointing out that state law requires districts to teach the subjects and wondering aloud “whether those mandates are carried out at all.”

Tarr’s amendments passed unanimously but the Republican leader also pressed the bill’s lead sponsor, state Senator Sal DiDomenico (D-Everett) on why he thought the current waiver provision is insufficient.

DiDomenico pointed out that “currently 12 school systems have sought waivers” but added that “there is a caveat to that,” explaining that the waiver system “as it stands today is very cumbersome.”

DiDomenico said the waivers must be requested by parents.

“Just think of the immigrant parents going through the bureaucratic process, and the paperwork needed, and even going forward to their school system and understanding there are other options,” he said. “That is not something that is readily available for these parents.

“So this would take away the need for a waiver, and give educators what they would need to educate all children.”

The waiver matter will assuredly rear its head during conference committee negotiations between the Senate and the House. The House version passed in June still requires school districts to apply for waivers, but loosens the requirements. The Senate version dumps the waiver protocol altogether.

DiDomenico in his remarks ahead of Thursday’s vote said the new proposal removes the current mandate but does not take away students’ option to take the English language immersion approach.

DiDomenico stressed that the bill gives districts “local control,” while state Senator Sonia Chang Diaz (D-Boston) spoke about the history behind the 2002 ballot initiative, which voters passed overwhelmingly by 68-32 percent.

Chang Diaz said the original intent behind the crafting of the ballot question was spurred by concerns that English language-learning students were not, in fact, learning English.

“We were failing to prepare them for success, and that was a righteous concern, and people responded to that,” she said. “The fact of the matter is that policy — we tried it — and it’s been a failed experiment, over a decade and a half.”

The new proposal passed by the Senate calls for districts to have more control over the languages used in the classroom, proponents argued, while boosting bilingualism.

D’Domenico claimed that the current sheltered English immersion system employed by public schools “leaves too many ELLs [English language learners] in the shadows.”

Should a final bill reach Baker’s desk and garner his signature, it would mark the second time in a year that a state has effectively dumped English language immersion policies. Massachusetts would join California, where voters last year repealed the statute.

The 2002 Massachusetts ballot initiative was led in part by California resident Ron Unz, a Silicone Valley-based software developer, who also spearheaded California’s original 1998 pro-English language immersion ballot initiative. In an op-ed that appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune ahead of last fall’s vote, Unz defended the original measure, which he noted “required California public schools to teach children English from their first day of classes, placing children who didn’t know English into an intensive sheltered English immersion program to teach the language as quickly as possible, then moving them into the regular classes with all the other children.”