For Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz, who is spearheading Massachusetts’ hotly contested ballot question to replace bilingual education with English immersion, the statement lived up to his reputation for bluntness.
After US Education Secretary Rod Paige made remarks favoring bilingual education, Unz shot back in an e-mail to journalists: ”Paige, a black former football coach, is believed to have obtained his job largely due to George W. Bush’s intense support for `Affirmative Access,’ and is widely regarded as the dimmest member of the Bush Cabinet.”
Massachusetts opponents of Unz’s ballot initiative were quick to seize on Unz’s reference to Paige’s race and the hostile tone of the message to buttress their contention that his views on bilingual education are motivated by insensitivity to minorities.
State Representative Peter J. Larkin, the House chairman of the Education Committee, said Unz’s comments illustrate his narrow world view, represented in the ”one-size-fits-all” ballot initiative Massachusetts voters will consider in November.
”It is unfortunate that the specter of race was involved because education should be color-blind,” said Larkin, a Pittsfield Democrat who sponsored a House bill that passed last week which would revamp bilingual education through less drastic measures. ”It describes, for me, Ron Unz’s arrogance. It describes his world view as myopic. I thought it was over the top.”
Despite the backlash, Unz refused to back off his remarks yesterday, saying Paige’s criticism of his stance on bilingual education prompted his statements. ”Rod Paige in a completely unprovoked way attacked our campaign,” Unz said. ”If you get punched in the face, you should expect to get a punch back.”
Added Unz: ”It seems to have stirred a lot of controversy and honestly I didn’t expect that. I never met secretary Rod Paige. Everything I said in the e-mail is basically what I read in numerous, numerous newspapers.”
However, even Unz supporters in Massachusetts distanced themselves yesterday from his statements.
”All I can say is Ron’s comments do not reflect my views and the views of our campaign,” said Lincoln Tamayo, who heads Unz’s Massachusetts effort to overhaul bilingual education. ”We do defintely disagree with Mr. Paige, but that is irrelevant to whether he is white or black or green. ”
Daniel Langan, Paige’s spokesman, said yesterday that Unz’s ”statements were very outrageous, and very inappropriate.”
Paige, Langan said, has an extensive record as superintendent of one of the largest school district in the country – Houston – as well as a dean and coach.
Unz launched the Massachusetts campaign last summer after similar ballot initiatives passed in California and Arizona, despite their sizeable immigrant populations.
Currently, Massachusetts lets students new to this country take most classes in their native tongues and gradually move to courses in English. Unz’s initiative would replace those classes with one year of English immersion before moving students to mainstream classes. About 40,000 students are enrolled in bilingual programs statewide.
The Larkin bill, cosponsored with state Senator Robert A. Antonioni, would give the state’s 371 school districts some choice among bilingual education programs to offer, and would also enact annual English proficiency tests to determine whether the programs are effective in moving students into mainstream classes.
Yesterday, Larkin sought to tie Republican gubernatorial candidate Mitt Romney, who has endorsed English immersion classes, to Unz.
But the Romney campaign sought to distance itself from Unz and his comments on Paige.
”Mitt Romney’s support for English immersion has nothing to do with Ron Unz and everything to do with the failure of bilingual education in Massachusetts,” said Shawn Feddeman, Romney’s spokeswoman. ”What Ron Unz thinks of President Bush or members of his Cabinet, what Ron Unz ordered for dinner last night and the last book he read, are totally irrelevant.”