Massachusetts Senate Passes Bills Expanding Educational Opportunities with Support from Senator Jason Lewis

The Massachusetts Senate passed two pieces of legislation aimed at expanding educational opportunities for targeted populations in the Commonwealth. An Act creating higher education opportunities for students with intellectual and development disabilities will help to enable this population of students to attend college with their same-aged peers in an inclusive setting.  An Act for language opportunity for our kids, also known as the LOOK Bill, removes the current mandate requiring schools to use Sheltered English Immersion (SEI), or English-only programs, as the default English Language Learner (ELL) program model, thereby giving schools the flexibility to establish programs based on the unique needs of their students.

“Education policy in the Commonwealth should strive to be as inclusive as possible, enhancing students’ chances for success to the fullest,” said Senator Jason Lewis.  “These two bills passed by the Senate fulfill those fundamental values as we seek to provide everyone across Massachusetts with the strongest and most complete academic opportunities.”

The higher education legislation opens the doors of our state colleges and universities to students who have been historically denied access to higher education, and held back to complete additional years of high school, because their disability prevented them from obtaining a high school diploma.  It also codifies the very successful Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Initiative Grant program, which allows high school students aged 18-21 with intellectual and developmental disabilities to participate in an inclusive college course and the student life of college as part of their high school special education.  Thirteen colleges and universities already partner with nearly 70 school districts statewide to offer the program, and now it will be available statewide for the rest of the residents of the Commonwealth.  All residents of our Commonwealth have the ability to be lifelong learners and pursue education and this bill allows each of our students to reach his or her potential.

The LOOK Bill addresses critical needs among English language learners.  For some children, moving into an English-only program too soon has proven to stunt academic growth and have major implications on future educational success. This has become a growing problem as the number of ELL students in Massachusetts continues to rise. Since the year 2000, the number of ELL students in Massachusetts has almost doubled to over 85,000 students.  As the ELL student population continues to grow, so does the achievement gap between them and their English as a first language peers; in 2015, only 64% of ELL students graduated from high school, as compared to 87% of all Massachusetts students. Of the 64% who graduated, only 34% enrolled in college, and 27% finished. In an effort to reverse these trends, the LOOK bill removes the one-size-fits-all requirements to better accommodate the diverse needs of the Commonwealth’s ELL students.

Rather than mandating new Language Acquisition Programs or dismantling current programs, this legislation removes the barriers to selecting the best programs for Massachusetts students. School districts may choose from any comprehensive, researched based instructional program that includes subject matter content and an English language acquisition component. These programs may include Sheltered English Immersion, Dual Language Education, or Transitional Bilingual Education.

The LOOK Bill also encourages a high level parental choice and involvement in selecting, advocating, and participating in English learner programs. Under the bill, school districts must notify parents annually of their rights to choose any ELL program offered in the school. Parents also have the right to select or reject a program based on the educational needs of their child, and are allowed to advocate as a group for a district to adopt a specific language acquisition program. Furthermore, this bill establishes a Parent Advisory Council composed of parents of students enrolled in ELL programs for districts with language acquisition programs that serve more than 100 ELL students or in which ELL students are more than 5% of the district’s school population. Their duties will include advising districts on matters that pertain to the education of students in ELL programs, meeting regularly with school officials to participate in the planning and development of ELL programs, and participating in a review of school or district improvement plans.

Both bills move to the Massachusetts House of Representatives for their consideration.