BOSTON — Lawmakers on Friday kicked off a series of closed-door negotiations on legislation to allow Massachusetts schools more flexibility in teaching English language learners.

The House in June and the Senate in July passed different versions of bills that would do away with key components of a 2002 ballot law requiring English-immersion instruction for public school students, including those who are not fluent in the language. Backers of the bills, which are now before a six-member conference committee, have said the law is restrictive and has not helped English language learners progress.

"We all know that the intent of all the work that we have here is to put our students in a position to match their peers, to go ahead with their peers and succeed at the same rate, and what is happening today is not there yet," Sen. Sal DiDomenico, the bill's Senate sponsor, said at the committee's first meeting in a conference room off his office. "And we understand that the last 15 years plus, there's been a tremendous gap that has not closed in that time, and hopefully this bill will address a lot of these things and put our kids on a path to success going forward."

Along with DiDomenico, the conference committee includes chairs Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz of Jamaica Plain and Rep. Alice Peisch of Wellesley, Reps. Frank Moran of Lawrence and Kimberly Ferguson of Holden, and Sen. Patrick O'Connor of Weymouth.

Chang-Diaz called the committee's first meeting a "momentous occasion."

"We are failing our English language learners, and we have been for many decades under multiple different systems here in Massachusetts," she said. "We have consistently ranked for many years among the worst in the nation in terms of the achievement gap between our English language learners and all other students, so we know ultimately that to meet the ambitious goals that we set for our schools and our students, we need to equip students with all of the tools they can have at their disposal."

The 2002 ballot question passed 68-32 percent. Lincoln Tamayo, who led the ballot campaign and now runs a school in Florida, said in July that removing the immersion requirement would make it harder for children to become fluent in the "language of success."

After five minutes of opening remarks Friday morning, the conference committee unanimously voted to close its talks to the public.