Baker Signs English Learning Overhaul Into Law

Students walk to class at Boston English High School. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Students walk to class at Boston English High School. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Massachusetts schools will now have more options for how they educate students learning the English language, under a bill Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law Wednesday.

A 2002 ballot law required English learners to be taught in sheltered immersion programs. Under the new law, school districts will be able to continue to use immersion, but will now also be able to choose a different approach to meet their students' needs, subject to approval by state education officials.

The 2002 ballot question passed 68 percent to 32 percent after a campaign that stressed the benefits of children learning English as quickly as possible. Supporters of the bill Baker signed have argued the ballot law is overly restrictive and has not helped close the achievement gap between native English speakers and their peers who are still learning the language.

The number of English learners in Massachusetts schools has doubled to more than 90,204 students, or 9.5 percent of the student population, since 2000, according to House Speaker Robert DeLeo's office.

Baker signed the bill Wednesday morning without a public ceremony. In a press release, he said the new law "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."

The governor on Monday said the current immersion system "works extremely well for tens of thousands of students," but that there are other students for whom it is not effective. The governor's comments fueled speculation about whether he would sign the bill, or seek to amend it perhaps.

The bill was originally filed by Sen. Sal DiDomenico and House Ways and Means Chair Jeffrey Sanchez, who had both been pursuing the issue for years. The final version passed the Senate unanimously and the House on a 155-1 vote last Wednesday.

Under the bill, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will also be charged with developing "seals of biliteracy" for high school diplomas to recognize students who are proficient in English and another language.

Senate Ways and Means Chair Karen Spilka said during discussion of the bill last week that the seal would indicate to colleges and employers that the student has an important skill, and that students in dual language programs are more aware of other cultures and better prepared to compete in a global environment.

The law also creates parent advisory committees at schools with a high concentration of English language learners and "raises expectations for data collection and program evaluations," according to the governor's office.

"Over the past six years the state undertook a comprehensive strategy for raising standards, training teachers, and evaluating program quality. As a result of these efforts, many students are building their English language skills at a faster pace," Education Secretary James Peyser said in a statement. "Although Sheltered English Immersion is succeeding for many students, it is not succeeding for all students. English language learners are not all the same."

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