OPINION: While politicians proudly proclaim the achievements of our multicultural state at local community events, the NSW government is quietly dismantling a key plank of multiculturalism since its inception in the 1970s - the dedicated statewide funding and provision of English language services to migrant and refugee students in state government schools.

The English as a second language program provides specialist ESL teacher support to newly arrived and ongoing English language learners in public primary and secondary schools across the state. It now comprises 896 teaching positions staffed by about 1600 specialist ESL teachers, supporting more than 130,000 migrant and refugee students.

Under the government's Local Schools, Local Decisions (LSLD) reform, the ESL program is about to undergo a fundamental change. The NSW Department of Education and Communities is moving to replace these state-wide arrangements for ESL teaching positions to schools.

Under the LSLD policy, school principals will have complete discretion over the use of ESL resources within their funding allocation, including ''trading-off'' teacher positions when determining a mix of staff within their school budgets. The policy threatens to take public education back 40 years, to a time when refugee and migrant students were left to ''sink or swim'' in classrooms.

Given what's at stake for English language learners, one would expect the government would proceed with caution. And there is no shortage of cautionary tales.

Implementation of similar school-based management policies in Victoria in the 1990s under the Kennett government resulted in long-term erosion of ESL services.

Acquiring English as a second language doesn't happen quickly. Students take about two years to achieve basic conversational fluency in spoken English. These students typically require a minimum of five to seven years of English language and literacy support in order to close the gap in academic performance with their English-speaking peers.

For refugee and other students with disrupted education and limited literacy skills in their own language, a significantly longer period of support is usually required. The ESL program is a valuable asset that has served the state well. Through it, public schools have been able to provide a focused response to Australia's immigration program and the complex and changing English learning needs of children from NSW's linguistically diverse and vulnerable refugee communities. But this capability can only be maintained if the ESL program continues as a strong, state-wide provision, safeguarded by tied funding arrangements, specific service guarantees and accountability requirements.

The progressive degradation of this asset and its long term consequences for students is the reason academics from NSW universities have written to the NSW government to ask it to rethink its devolution plans for ESL before the permanent and irreparable damage is done.

Professor Chris Davison is Head of the School of Education at UNSW and Dr Michael Michell is a Research Fellow at the School.

This opinion piece was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald.