A wealthy Palo Altan has made up his mind to change the state’s approach to bilingual education, one vote at a time. Ron Unz, a 35-year-old multimillionaire and former Republican gubernatorial candidate, has spearheaded a campaign to put an initiative he calls “English for the Children” on the June 1998 California ballot.

The measure, which is co-sponsored by some liberal education activists as well as conservatives, would ban bilingual education classrooms and replace them with “sheltered English immersion”.

“I really do believe that America should have a unified common language like English,” said Unz, a Bryant Street resident who received 34 percent of the vote in the state gubernatorial primary against Gov. Pete Wilson in 1994.

To this end, he has coauthored a bill with education activist Gloria Matta Tuchman of Santa Ana that he believes will let children learn English more quickly than they do currently.

The bill is centered around the debate over whether non-native English-speaking children learn better if they receive an intensive language injection before moving onto other subjects. Some suggest they are better off studying traditional subjects like math and history in their native language in conjunction with tutoring in English.

In Unz’s bill, children classified as “English learners,” or non-English speakers, will be grouped together in intensive English-instruction classrooms.

An exception to the initiative, which requires the garnering of 432,000 signatures by November to even reach the ballot, may be granted if a child is older than 10. Other exceptions, to be granted with a parent’s prior written consent, include proven English competency or special emotional,
physical, educational or psychological needs.

Unz has more than 1,000 volunteers working on collecting signatures.
As of Monday they had gathered 40,000 signatures.

The bill would also channel $50 million a year for 10 years from the state’s general fund toward programs that would train adults to teach English to California school children.

“Within months to a year, the overwhelming majority of these young children would become fluent in English and could be transferred into a mainstream classroom, giving them the same educational opportunities as all other school children,” the campaign materials read.

But some local education experts think it may not be that simple. Although such legislation probably wouldn’t affect Palo Alto, Palo Alto Unified School District board member and Stanford education professor Amado Padilla sees serious flaws with defining the complex problem of educating a demographic group so narrowly.

“These are issues that have been kicked around for a long time,”
Padilla said. “This (bill) is filled with much of the same kind of lack of understanding about the difficulty of learning a second language in an academic setting.”

Unz, a libertarian conservative, claims bilingual education has failed California’s children. He cites estimates that 1.3 million California public school children–about 25 percent–cannot speak English with proficiency.

But Unz is concerned that his initiative will be categorized with such measures as Proposition 187.

Unz himself was adamantly opposed to Proposition 187, a statewide bill that passed overwhelmingly in 1994 that cut back on state-funded services,
such as education and health care, available to illegal immigrants.

That bill, along with proposition 209 which outlaws affirmative action in California and was passed by state voters in 1996, is tied up in the courts.

Unz, who has no children of his own, first had the idea for the initiative when he read an account of Latina parents in Los Angeles boycotting their school district because of their opposition to bilingual education. According to a Los Angeles Times article from Jan. 16, 1996, parents there felt their children were being denied the possibility of breaking out of the cycle of poverty by delaying their immersion in English.

“The system was so much worse than I really believed,” he said.
He then decided to put his resources toward educating the public about what he sees as the failure of bilingual education.

Unz earned his fortune first as an investment banker then as president and CEO of Wall Street Analytics, his own home-based software company.

“With this initiative, once people are exposed to the numbers that not everyone is aware of, they’re very eager to sign it,” Unz said.
“I really will be amazed if it doesn’t win overwhelmingly.”

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