Seizing the Initiative

The man out to kill bilingual education has his own plan for teaching English to California's immigrant kids. Now he's putting it to a vote.

May/June 1998

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Seizing the Initiative

Photo: Jason M. Grow

Ron Unz wants to prove a point. He is in the middle of giving me a tour of Wall Street Analytics, the Palo Alto financial software company he co-founded, when he spots an employee we'll call John.

"You came to this country when you were 14, right? How long did it take you to learn English?" asks the Silicon Valley millionaire who's crusading to eliminate bilingual education in California. Unz wants to demonstrate that the alternative he's proposing – a single intense year of English instruction – will work.

"I was 13 when I moved here from Korea," John tells us. "I worked with a nun about one hour a day. It was about nine months before I could get along. It took me about two years to get up to speed."

Unz nods approvingly, as if he has just hammered another nail into the coffin of California's beleaguered bilingual program. The current system allows students to learn English gradually, for up to seven years, while simultaneously receiving math, social studies and reading instruction in their native language. Unz's "English for the Children" initiative, which is up for a vote on June 2, would mandate that the almost 1.4 million students who don't speak English – 15 percent of California's public school students – spend a year in special English immersion classes. After that year, students would be required under the Unz initiative to move into the mainstream.

Unz's critics – a mix of educators and Hispanic groups – warn that this sink-or-swim approach will jeopardize immigrants' chances of succeeding in school. They cite Orange County, where educators have used the English immersion approach Unz is advocating. Opponents say the success rate there is even lower than it was before the county opted out of bilingual education. But Unz, a former North Hollywood High debate champion, counters that his program is an immigrant's best hope. "I have nothing against bilingual education," he insists. "It just doesn't work."

To decipher this murky, emotion-driven debate, you need some key pieces of information. First, even supporters of bilingual education admit the current program has serious flaws. Many school districts have become hooked on the money the program brings in from state and federal programs and therefore have an incentive to place students in these classes and keep them there. The system also has spawned an entrenched and vocal bureaucracy that is lobbying for its own survival.

Second, the reality of bilingual ed doesn't live up to its theory. The program is supposed to help students learn English while, at the same time, they are taught subjects like math and social studies in their native language. This way they can keep up academically. But in practice, there are no consistent criteria for deciding which students should get bilingual ed or when a student is ready to learn in English. And there aren't enough teachers, which means only about 30 percent of the state's "limited English proficient" students are in bilingual programs. (The other 70 percent receive some special help in English or are simply lumped in with native English speakers.) The teachers who have been hired often lack proper training, and the classes can be an odd mix. Hispanic students make up about 80 percent of the state's school-age limited-English speakers, but a class taught in Spanish might intermingle immigrant Koreans and Chinese with Latinos. No wonder the New Republic recently called the system "Kafkaesque."

Not surprisingly, the system suffers from a high dropout rate among limited-English speakers. Two years ago, more than 200 Hispanic parents boycotted Los Angeles public schools after educators refused to transfer their children out of bilingual ed into English-speaking classes. The boycott made headlines, capturing the attention of Unz, a longtime bilingual-ed opponent. "I never got over reading that story," says Unz, who credits the boycott with inspiring his initiative, known as Proposition 227.

Unz is an unlikely general in the nation's education wars. He is 36, single and childless. Although he has degrees from Harvard in physics and ancient history and studied with famed physicist Stephen Hawking at Cambridge, he has no background in education. (He spent 11 quarters studying for a physics PhD at Stanford but left to start his software company before completing the degree.)

The software millionaire hardly looks or acts the part of the slick political operative. He is a computer nerd turned public policy wonk whose favorite hangouts are Burger King and Round Table Pizza. His idea of relaxing is stuffing initiative envelopes while watching The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. He is so consumed with politics that he's never bothered furnishing his million-dollar home in Palo Alto.

For TV appearances, he swaps rumpled jeans for one of his few suits – purchased in 1994 during his first political campaign, an unsuccessful primary bid to unseat Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. Unlike most politicians, who obediently toe the party line, Unz is a maverick. He often angers party leaders with his single-minded campaigns, which are based on his eclectic mix of conservative Republican and Libertarian ideals.

Take the bilingual campaign. While GOP leaders have warned that it could alienate Hispanic voters from the party, Unz has shrewdly cobbled together support from Hispanic leaders and conservatives. He recruited Gloria Matta Tuchman, a Mexican-American educator who teaches English immersion, to co-chair the initiative drive. (Tuchman is also running for state schools superintendent.) The honorary chairman is Jaime Escalante, whose story – high school teacher helps barrio kids learn college-level calculus – was turned into the Hollywood movie Stand and Deliver.

When opponents suggest the initiative is racially divisive, Unz points to Tuchman and Escalante as well as to independent polls that show broad support across ethnic and party lines. In fact, it's tough to tag Unz as an immigrant-bashing racist. His politics truly defy pigeonholing. For example, he fought Proposition 187, the 1994 measure that sharply limited immigrants' access to social and educational programs. But he supported Proposition 209, the 1996 initiative to end affirmative action. While both measures passed, only Prop 209 has cleared the inevitable legal challenges and taken effect.

"Ron is not your typical politician. He's a hybrid – a cross between a computer geek and a political theorist," observes Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, who first met Unz during their joint battle against Prop 187. Last summer, when Unz told Sharry he was launching a crusade to kill bilingual education, Sharry tried to talk him out of it. When he failed, he advised Unz: "This could get ugly, divisive. If you're going to do it, do it in a way that is pro-Latino and pro-immigrant." Unz was already there.

The man who boasts of scoring perfect 800s on college SATs candidly admits that he wrote his controversial initiative without setting foot in a bilingual classroom. "The accounts I've read make it clear how bilingual classes are handled," he explains. "Seeing it would have reinforced what I read and saw on TV. But I've talked with parents and teachers."

To arrive at his conclusion that a single year of English immersion was about right, Unz did his own reality check. "I just asked friends how long it took them to learn English." As a child, Unz heard the stories of how his Yiddish-speaking mother, the daughter of Russian immigrants, was steeped in English before entering kindergarten. He concluded that if she could do it, then why not immigrant children today? Unz disregards the extensive academic research on the topic because "it's funded by pro- or anti-bilingual supporters."

Critics pounce on Unz's homespun bilingual remedy and his lack of credentials as proof that Prop 227 is half-baked. "I find it curious that a man who has no training in education, no academic research to support his theory and who's not even a parent is offering a prescription for teaching 1.38 million children how to learn English," says Kelly Hayes-Raitt, director of the No on Unz campaign.

California's state schools superintendent, Delaine Eastin, has few kind words for Prop 227, which she denounces as a "wedge issue." She's also critical of Unz's practice of spending his own money to influence policy. Says Eastin: "I really think this country shouldn't be used as a kind of plaything." The real debate, she contends, should be over how to fix bilingual education. "I'm disgusted that a kid born in California can't speak English by fourth or fifth grade," Eastin says. She wants to see funding increased so that more bilingual teachers can be trained and hired.

Unz sees nothing wrong with using his wealth to influence what he perceives as flawed public policies. In 1994, he funded his $2 million "surprise attack" on Pete Wilson in the GOP primary with his own money, profits from Wall Street Analytics. Unz estimates he has poured another $600,000 into his bilingual campaign, about half of the total money raised. And over the years, he's contributed to conservative political think tanks like the Manhattan Institute and the Hoover Institution.

Unz's almost-obsessive passion for public-policy debates is inherited. He grew up in a family where arguing policy issues for hours is a tradition. But in these family debates, Unz is usually the odd man out. "I come from a left-liberal Democrat background," he says. "My mom thinks I'm a fool to waste my money on public policy kinds of things – many of which she doesn't agree with."

Unz's aunt, Rivko Knox, is the former head of the Arizona American Civil Liberties Union. She's proud of her nephew, even if she often finds his policy fixes too theoretical. One evening, he tried to convince her that the keys to getting off welfare are discipline and planning. "He explained to me how if two people working for minimum wage shared an apartment, didn't own a car but got a bike, they could get by without government assistance," Knox recalls with a sigh. "Some of these things sound good in theory, but what if you get sick or the bike breaks down? In some ways, life is very easy for Ron because he is so brilliant. I think he finds it hard to understand why, if you need a job, you can't just go out and get one."

Unz's critics echo the same concern about Prop 227 – that it's more wishful thinking than a practical education program able to adapt to students with widely varying degrees of English competency. But if the initiative passes – and the polls so far suggest it will – its impact will be real. School districts will be required within 60 days to scrap most current bilingual instruction and place limited-English-speaking children in English immersion classes. The teachers in these classes must speak English or risk being sued under the law. At the end of one year, most students would be required to transfer into mainstream classes.

It's this mandate – that a student must move on even if unprepared – that initiative opponents are targeting. But Prop 227's author fires back that his initiative allows exceptions. "Normally, it shouldn't take more than a year," Unz emphasizes. "But if a child still doesn't know English, his teachers could decide to keep him in an English immersion class for a couple of months longer without getting a waiver."

Parents would have to apply for a yearly waiver if they want their kids to receive bilingual instruction. Such exceptions will only be permitted under narrow circumstances. And there must be at least 20 children in the school with waivers to form a class, otherwise they must transfer to other schools. "The waivers aren't really available to anyone," argues Thomas Saenz, Los Angeles regional counsel for the Mexican American Defense and Education Fund. "The initiative takes away parents' rights."

Opponents worry that many of these parents may never learn about the waivers or understand how to navigate the bureaucracy because they don't speak English. Unz is unconcerned. He sees the waiver process as a litmus test of parent commitment to bilingual education. "Those parents who want their child kept in a bilingual program can obtain a waiver. I don't think most of them feel that strongly about it, one way or another."

Unz may be right. At least so far, the attacks on Prop 227 haven't gotten much traction. A statewide poll taken in March showed 70 percent of voters supported the initiative. Among Latinos, 61 percent said they planned to vote for the measure.

Also in March, the state board of education added a new twist to the debate, voting unanimously to allow local school districts to decide how best to educate students with limited English skills. Bilingual education is still an option, though not the board's preferred choice. It's unclear what effect this decision might have on the fate of Prop 227. On the one hand, it puts language instruction under the control of local school districts – something voters have traditionally backed, and something that the statewide Unz initiative would take away. On the other, in districts hostile to bilingual education, it is a first step in dismantling such programs. Voters may decide to finish the job by supporting Prop 227.

Unz remains confident of victory, even predicting that if Californians kill bilingual education, he won't need to take his crusade nationwide. "It might not be necessary," he says. "Half of all bilingual students in the country live in California. I think the rest of the nation will just crumble like the Berlin Wall." And if it doesn't, expect Ron Unz to be there with his sledgehammer.

Tia O'Brien is a frequent contributor to Stanford.

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