Funding for challenge to bilingual education questioned

Parents contend some donations violate state law

A group of parents filed a complaint yesterday with state campaign-finance officials, charging that an effort to dismantle bilingual education in Massachusetts received $98,000 in illegal, out-of-state contributions.

Fifteen parents from seven communities urged the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance to order the return of $98,000 received by English for the Children of Massachusetts. That group seeks to scrap Massachusetts’ 31-year-old bilingual-education law through a ballot question in November – an initiative spearheaded by Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley millionaire whose efforts to end bilingual education have passed in California and Arizona.

English for the Children of Massachusetts reported getting about $98,000 of its $271,000 in donations last year from English for the Children of California, which campaigned to end bilingual education in that state. But the parents say the contribution is illegal because Massachusetts law prohibits out-of-state political committees from soliciting money specifically for a Massachusetts ballot question.

The parents – all members of Leave No Child Behind, a pro-bilingual education group – wrote a letter asking the Office of Campaign and Political Finance to order the return of the $98,000. They say it is more proof that deep-pocketed, out-of-state interests are driving Unz’s effort to throw out bilingual education in Massachusetts. Unz himself loaned about $75,000 to the Massachusetts campaign, according to the most recent campaign-finance reports, which tracked donations made in 2001.

”Somebody from another state, who has no children in Massachusetts public schools and isn’t even a resident of the state, is bringing in outside money to influence a decision which proposes taking away all parental choice,” said Ingrid Nava of Roslindale, one of the parents who wrote to state officials.

But Unz says the law is on his side. Massachusetts does not permit out-of-state groups to solicit money specifically for local ballot initiatives, unless the groups register with the state. But state law does let such outside groups raise money for general purposes, then donate it to specific ballot campaigns.

Unz said that’s exactly what happened here. He said a Wall Street financier donated the money last summer for nationwide anti-bilingual education efforts. Then Unz decided to use the donations for his Massachusetts ballot initiative, which would place bilingual students in one-year English immersion classes. Currently, students can stay in bilingual education for three years, although many stay longer.

”I really think they’re better off talking about bilingual education than filing what seems to be a nuisance complaint,” Unz said.

The state Office of Campaign and Political Finance does not comment on receiving or investigating specific complaints, said spokesman Denis Kennedy.

In this case, the office noticed the out-of-state contribution in February and asked Unz’s Massachusetts campaign to clarify whether the $98,000 was raised specifically for the ballot question. The campaign’s treasurer, though, responded that English for the Children of California did not solicit money just for Massachusetts’ ballot initiative.

That doesn’t mollify Unz’s opponents: They say the millionaire has referred to the Massachusetts ballot question in letters e-mailed weekly around the country and is soliciting donations through his Web site.

”This is a campaign being run out of California … it’s a front,” said Jenni Lopez of the group Leave No Child Behind. ”These parents feel it is totally, wholly unfair for this person to take these kinds of actions.”

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