Fifteen years after Massachusetts voters pushed bilingual education out of most public schools, lawmakers are on the verge of allowing school systems to teach students academic subjects in their own languages if they’re not yet fluent in English.
The changes could affect more than 90,000 Massachusetts students classified as “English language learners,” a steadily growing portion that now represents nearly 10 percent of the state’s public-school enrollment.
Lawmakers are responding to growing calls from educators, parents, students, and immigrant-rights advocates who argue that the requirement voters approved in 2002 to teach all academic classes to non-native speakers in English is harming their classroom performance.
For many advocates, the issue boils down to a simple question: How can you expect students to learn complex concepts in math, science, and other subjects when they don’t even yet know how to speak, read, or understand English?
The Senate is scheduled to vote on the proposed changes Thursday. The House approved a similar measure last month, 151 to 2.
“This is an important move by the Legislature to correct a wrong,” said Senator Sal DiDomenico, an Everett Democrat. “Kids are falling through the cracks and are not getting the education they need.”
Supporters of the measures are optimistic that bilingual education, in which students can learn academic subjects in their native tongue while gaining English fluency, can be a regular feature again in Massachusetts schools. Some advocates say they don’t necessarily favor one version of the bill over the other.
“We just want a bill that passes that gives kids a better chance,” said Marion Davis, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “Schools and parents should be able to work together and decide what is the best approach for each student.”
Brendan Moss, a spokesman for Governor Charlie Baker, said Baker has not taken a position yet on the bills but will carefully review any legislation that reaches his desk.
Massachusetts schools have been struggling for years to boost the performance of students who lack fluency in English — a population that has nearly doubled over the past 15 years as more immigrant families settle in the state. On average, students lacking English fluency have among the lowest standardized test scores and graduation rates.
But some students overcome those dismal statistics. In Boston, for instance, many high school valedictorians each year are immigrant students.
Many educators, advocates, and families blame the so-called English-only law for the low achievement of most students who aren’t yet fluent. They argue the law is too restrictive, creating a one-size-fits-all approach to a population of students with vastly different academic needs and fluency levels in English.
On one end of the spectrum, some students who are classified as English-language learners were born in the United States in immigrant households where English is not the primary language, but those students may have gained some understanding of it from relatives who speak English or from TV or neighbors.
On the other end of the spectrum, students themselves may have arrived in the country with no knowledge of English. Some may not even have had any formal schooling for several years and could be suffering trauma from war, political strife, or natural disasters in their home countries.
Under current law, school systems must teach all courses in English and can use a student’s native language only occasionally to check for understanding. The law provides some exceptions, such as allowing dual-language programs in which English-speaking students and non-native students learn each other’s languages.
But students lacking English fluency also performed poorly under bilingual education, prompting voters in part in 2002 to dismantle that program and replace it with what is officially known as “structured English immersion.”
Rosalie Pedalino Porter, a former bilingual education director for the Newton schools who supported the ballot question, said she thinks it would be a mistake to bring back bilingual education wholesale.
“I do not believe there is any problem with the law as it is written,” said Porter, who is chairwoman of ProEnglish, a Washington, D.C., organization that advocates for laws that make English the official language. “Any changes to that law is going to be harmful to children.”
DiDomenico said he expects the Senate will pass the bill Thursday. He noted that the Senate passed a similar bill last year, and so did the House, but the votes came at the end of the legislative session and time ran out for a compromise.
This time, he said, the two chambers will have up to a year to iron out their differences.
The main difference between the two bills is the amount of flexibility given to school systems. The House measure would loosen current requirements for school systems to seek waivers to the English-only rule, while the Senate bill would abolish the waivers and instead give school systems a choice of specific programs, including English immersion and bilingual education.
Adding urgency for a compromise is a desire among lawmakers to make Massachusetts more welcoming at a time when President Trump’s administration has tightened immigration rules and Trump himself has continued anti-immigrant rhetoric.
And the growing presence of English-language learners in school systems across the state makes it tough for policy makers to ignore, some academic experts said.