Hiding from “English” in Massachusetts

The political behavior of the opponents of our Massachusetts “English” initiative is beginning to follow an interesting, though not entirely unexpected pattern.

When we first launched our campaign almost nine months ago, a prominent local politician named Jarrett Barrios quickly assumed leadership of the No side, having successfully led the opposition to various legislative attempts to require more English in Massachusetts schools.

Barrios, a very liberal state representative from very liberal Cambridge, is probably the Commonwealth’s most prominent Latino elected official, and certainly regarded as a rising star. His political skills are exceptionally strong and highly polished, with his main flaw being a reputation for rank opportunism, together with recurring doubts about his candor; a few months ago, these traits were highlighted in a rather negative cover-story profile in The Boston Phoenix, a left-liberal alternative weekly. During our several debates, he reminded me most of a young and Latino (and openly gay) Bill Clinton, with the same combination of strengths and weaknesses as our controversial former president.

Although Barrios obviously knew nothing whatsoever about bilingual education, this lack did not prevent him from effectively making the case against our ballot measure, with such improvisational ability being the truest sign of a political “natural.” He clearly viewed his leadership of the No campaign as an excellent opportunity to rally liberal activists to his banner and also to raise his statewide name recognition, perhaps with an eye toward much higher office in the future. Since Barrios was a “pro” who neither knew nor cared anything much about bilingual education, his debating style was generally polite and respectful.

Regrettably, Barrios now seems to have abandoned his role in the No campaign. During my more recent trips to Massachusetts for various public hearings and other events, he has become almost invisible, having previously been a ubiquitous presence. The newspapers no longer carry any of his pithy quotes making the case for the No side, and he decided against even bothering to file the bilingual education legislation that he had so strongly touted last year. Indeed, a reporter for Barrios’s own hometown newspaper, the Cambridge Chronicle, informed me that the Representative was quite reluctant to even discuss the subject, saying that it was no longer a focus of his political interest. When experienced politicians refuse to talk with local reporters, their silence says a great deal.

The likely reasons for Barrios’s change of heart are fairly obvious. I assume that he finally decided to more closely examine the actual details of the program that he had spent years defending with such vigor. Presumably, he then discovered that its theoretical foundation included the bizarre and nonsensical belief that “older is easier” for learning a new language. He discovered that virtually every mainstream journalist who had investigated bilingual programs had concluded that they were a clear failure, and that their dismantlement in California had led to enormous educational gains. He checked that California’s own official educational website revealed that young English-learners not in bilingual programs were up to three times as academically successful as English-learners who remained in bilingual programs. And most importantly, he probably noticed that numerous credible surveys showed nearly 80% of Massachusetts voters—and also nearly 80% of Latino adults—supported “English.” Rather than risk his credibility—and his career– -by defending the indefensible, about which he had never really cared in the first place, he shrewdly went into hiding.

Unfortunately, with Barrios’s disappearance, the visible leadership of the No campaign seems to have fallen to a small group of mostly Anglo zealots, who are far less pleasant opponents. During debates or media opportunities, these fervent individuals compensate for their lack of verbal skill with loudness and intensity, shouting, screaming, or frequently interrupting my own statements and those of anyone else on our side. Being diehard true-believers, they also make little effort to ascertain actual facts or maintain minimal credibility, regularly claiming that immigrant test scores in California have become a “disaster” since 1998, absolute reality to the contrary.

Meanwhile, the more disciplined side of the No campaign seems to have decided to avoid the subject of bilingual education entirely. As the articles below indicate, they recently levied rather frivolous conflict-of-interest charges against the Massachusetts leaders of the “English” campaign. Chairman Lincoln Tamayo, who resigned from his position as a high-school principal in order to devote his full-time efforts to the campaign, was denounced for receiving salary payments totaling $17,000. Similarly, Co-Chair Rosalie Porter was blasted for receiving $1,000 as reimbursement for her itemized phone and mailing expenses.

Now these are hardly princely sums. Consider also that an uncharitable observer might note out that many of our most vigorous and visible opponents themselves derive their entire livelihood—and vastly greater salaries—from the $150 million that Massachusetts taxpayers currently allocate each year to their entrenched bilingual education industry. But glass houses are invisible to desperate campaigns.

Similarly, our opponents have wrongly claimed that the English for the Children committee based in California has improperly raised money solely for the purpose of the Massachusetts campaign. Obviously our organization is also preparing “English” campaigns in Colorado, Santa Ana, and other places as well.

Such nuisance charges are hardly likely to have much political impact, but to the extent that they permit our opponents to discuss something— anything—other than the educational elephant in the room, namely the question of whether or not immigrant students should be taught English in school, they are not entirely pointless. However, campaigns that run and hide from their own central issue are hardly radiating an air of confidence, and the media tends to notice such things.

By all indications, it appears increasingly likely that America’s oldest statewide bilingual program will soon follow its unlamented California counter- part into the educational dustbin of history.

Finally, I am very pleased to report that the California State Board of Education apparently yesterday eliminated the last of the proposed regulations that had threatened to nullify core provisions of Proposition 227. I commend them for their change of heart on this important matter.


P.S. In a recent column, I attached and discussed the long and detailed investigative article on bilingual programs that appeared in the current issue of Commonwealth Magazine, which is published by the MassINC research institute. I described the reportage as absolutely even-handed and balanced, and MassINC as one of New England’s most highly regarded policy think-tanks; and I fully stand by these words. However, I less correctly characterized MassINC as having a liberal orientation, when in fact the organization has done its utmost to scrupulously maintain a non-partisan and non-ideological perspective on policy issues. I regret my confusion.

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