Ron Unz’s unsuccessful underdog campaign for governor in 1994 was dubbed “Revenge of the Nerd,” because of the Silicon Valley entrepreneur’s high IQ.
Friends and foes have a harder time finding a catchy label for his current campaign to end bilingual education in California.
“I’d call it ‘The Children’s Crusade,’ although it’s not being led by children,” said Robert Poole, president of the Reason Foundation, a pro-free-market Los Angeles think tank supporting Unz.
“I’d characterize the Unz initiative as the ‘Titanic,’ a sinking ship,” said Kelly Hayes-Raitt, spokeswoman for Citizens for an Educated America, a group opposed to the measure.
State voters will decide whether Unz’s initiative, which qualified for the June ballot last week, sinks or becomes a blockbuster. The outcome could determine if there is a sequel for Unz on the campaign trail.
Bilingual education is becoming California’s hottest social issue, a follow-up to Proposition 187, the 1994 measure to block government benefits for immigrants, and Proposition 209, the 1996 measure to end affirmative action.
A November Field Poll found that 69 percent of all likely voters — and 66 percent of Hispanics — support English as the sole language of instruction in schools.
Unz and his campaign co-sponsor, Santa Ana first-grade teacher Gloria Matta Tuchman, call their measure “English for the Children.”
Opponents call it the “Unz” initiative, hoping his name will help defeat it.
Unz contributed $330,000 of the initiative’s $473,000 campaign chest through Sept. 30, according to the latest expense reports on file. He has taken a leave from his Palo Alto-based software firm to barnstorm the state.
Why is he doing this?
The story is more complex than labels such as “nerd,” “crusade”
or “Titanic” suggest.
Ronald Keeva Unz was born Sept. 20, 1961, in Los Angeles. His mother,
Esther Unz, was a high school English teacher and daughter of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. His father, Israeli physicist Hilel Unz, left the family when Ron was an infant and has since lost touch.
Unz showed early intellectual precociousness. By age 12, he had read all dozen volumes of Arnold Toynbee’s history of the world, according to his aunt, Rivko Knox, a Phoenix attorney. He scored 214 on an IQ test.
Unz scored a perfect 1600 on his SAT college entrance exams and placed first in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search — known as the high school equivalent of the Nobel Prize — for a report on virtual photons and black holes.
But by his own admission, Unz failed to excel at one high school subject:
“I never learned to speak it well,” he said. “I couldn’t do the accent.”
Despite his problems learning a foreign language, Unz argues that he knows best how California’s 1.3 million non-English-speaking students should be taught.
His initiative would place almost all limited-English students in “sheltered English” classes for a year. After that, they would enroll in regular classes containing fluent students.
The plan takes aim at bilingual education programs that slowly move Spanish-speaking students from their native language into English. He blames bilingual programs for California’s 5 percent annual rate of reclassifying students from limited English to fluent English. He calls that a 95 percent failure rate.
“If they don’t get English in school, how will they learn it?”
Critics say Unz is playing with numbers. In fact, the argument could be made that the failing programs are those he advocates. Less than a third of California’s limited-English students study in Spanish. Only 13 percent of Orange County’s 134,000 limited-English students were taught in Spanish last year.
Some long-term studies have shown that students in traditional bilingual programs do as well or better than those in the kind of English-immersion programs Unz advocates. Most important, critics say, the Unz initiative would deprive school districts of local control in determining whether to retain bilingual programs that work.
“I understand his frustration and wanting to come up with a solution,
but I think his solution is extreme,” said Hayes-Raitt, who has debated bilingual education with Unz several times..
But Unz says it defies common sense to say first-graders need seven or more years to learn English, the position advanced by bilingual education experts.
“I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant, but I don’t think a lot of these types of academic studies are as rigorous as theoretical physics,”
he said. “I don’t view education theory as being scientifically respectable.”
Unz has solid science credentials. He also has a history of frustration with public schools.
After high school, he attended Harvard, where he double-majored in theoretical physics and ancient history. He spent a year in Cambridge, England, on a Winston Churchill Fellowship, studying physics with Stephen Hawking, famed author of “A Brief History of Time.” He then enrolled in a Ph.D.
program in physics at Stanford.
While at Stanford, Unz hatched a plan to open a special high school in Los Angeles for gifted students. He enlisted support from Nobel laureates,
Mayor Tom Bradley and the editor of the Harvard Law Review. He landed a
$3.5 million grant from the Weingart Foundation.
But the Los Angeles Unified School board rejected the plan as elitist.
The experience embittered Unz and marked a turning point in his life.
“I said, the next time I try something like this, I won’t be a penniless graduate student,” he recalled.
Unz left Stanford in 1985 for a summer internship at First Boston, a Wall Street investment bank. He never returned.
At First Boston, Unz wrote a computer program to structure securities backed by real estate mortgages. The program was so successful that he left within a year to found his own company, Wall Street Analytics.
He moved his company to Palo Alto in 1992. Wall Street Analytics has more than 80 clients, including the Bank of America, according to its Web site. Unz declined to say how much the company earns, but it has made him wealthy.
Still, he is a man of simple bachelor’s tastes. He drives a 1992 Nissan Sentra. He still hasn’t furnished the living room of the home he bought in Palo Alto in 1993.
“The last shirt I bought was at Sear’s about six months ago,”
he said. He stocks his kitchen with cartons of instant noodles and beans.
But he typically dines on takeout hamburgers, pizza or Chinese food.
“The last time I was in Palo Alto, he took me to a $10 Chinese place,”
said Robert Dujarric, Unz’s Harvard roommate, who now works for the Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank. “Ron is more of a guy who eats to live than a guy who lives to eat.”
His mother wonders why Unz doesn’t settle down.
“She thinks I should be looking for a nice Jewish girl to marry,”
Unz said his hectic work schedule leaves no time for love. Instead, politics is the closest thing Unz has to a hobby. He’s donated tens of thousands of dollars to think tanks that sympathize with his free-market philosophy such as the Manhattan Institute in New York and the Center for Equal Opportunity in Washington.
He sank more than $1 million into his gubernatorial campaign. Then a political unknown, Unz garnered 34 percent of the vote in the Republican primary.
Candidate Unz advocated lower taxes, reduced government and free enterprise.
He opposed Prop. 187, arguing that immigration has fueled America’s economic vitality. He attributes much of the innovation of Silicon Valley to immigrants from Taiwan, Russia, India and other nations.
Rather than abolish immigration, he said, abolish the programs that create dependence on government.
His interest in bilingual education is an outgrowth of this philosophy.
English mastery opens the door to America’s economic opportunities, Unz argues. People without economic opportunity become welfare dependents.
Linda Chavez, founder of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a syndicated newspaper columnist, said Unz’s anti-bilingual initiative is a brilliant use of his financial clout to shape policy — and enhances his political future.
“It keeps his name in the news. It keeps him viable,” she said.
Unz is evasive about his political plans. He feels at home among policy wonks and intellectuals, but awkward pressing the flesh on the campaign trail.
“Before running for governor, I never even ran for class president,”
he said. “Politics is part of entertainment. It’s how you hold your head. It’s makeup. It’s sound bites.
“The more I meet people in politics, the more cynical I become.
Politicians don’t read. They don’t know about issues.”
He admits to growing slightly bored with the bilingual issue after being forced to answer the same questions day after day.
Typical of his appearances was a debate last month at the California School Boards Association convention in Anaheim. He gave his stock arguments
— a litany about government inaction and inflexibility.
He recited the plight of Hispanic parents with children at Los Angeles’
Ninth Street School, who battled bureaucrats to have their children taught in English, not Spanish.
Whatever his motivation, whatever his plans, Unz is certain about one thing in this campaign. It’s a point that opponents reinforce by substituting his name for the initiative’s title.
“It’s clear,” he said, “that nothing would happen without my getting involved.”