Governor Charlie Baker signed a bill into law Wednesday that will allow school systems to teach students academic subjects in their native language while they gain fluency in English, effectively overturning a 15-year-old ballot measure that eliminated bilingual education from most public schools.
Schools, however, retain the right to provide English-only instruction. The goal of the new law, which garnered overwhelming approval in the House and Senate last week, is to provide school systems and parents with the flexibility to choose programs that best suit the needs of students.
More than 90,000 Massachusetts students are classified as English language learners, representing about 10 percent of the state’s public school enrollment.
“This legislation preserves an existing approach that works well for many students, while providing school districts with the opportunity to adopt alternative, credible ways to teach English that may be more beneficial for certain students,” said Baker said in a statement.
Advocates praised Baker’s decision. The governor had not taken a public position on the law while it worked its way through the Legislature.
While school systems gain flexibility, the bill requires them to seek approval from the state education department any time they seek to change their programs. All programs must be research-based. The state also has the right to inspect any program it wants if it is concerned about quality.
Meanwhile, the state is crafting a new school accountability system that will track whether schools are making enough progress in helping students gain fluency in English.
State education officials will now need to draft regulations so the changes can be implemented. The law features a new component that a growing number of schools have been interested in pursuing: a “seal of biliteracy,” which can be affixed on the diplomas of students who gain fluency in more than one language.
The hope is that such a seal will encourage more students to become bilingual in an increasingly global economy.
Several school systems, including Boston, Cambridge, and Holliston, have run programs for decades that teach students classes in English and another language, such as Spanish, with the goal of having them become fluent in both.
The English-only law included a provision that allowed those kinds of dual-language programs to continue. That law also technically allowed school systems and parents to run what is officially known as transitional bilingual education programs, but few, if any, did because it required a cumbersome waiver process to get the programs running.
The new law eliminates that waiver process.
“Although Sheltered English Immersion is succeeding for many students, it is not succeeding for all students. English language learners are not all the same,” said James Peyser, the state’s education secretary.