NEW YORK – After leading the revolt against bilingual education in
California, Ron Unz would like to see one in New York City. Unz, a software
millionaire who successfully promoted the Proposition 227 initiative there last
year, believes that New Yorkers are even more determined than Californians to
see their children educated in English.
“The poll numbers in New York are stronger than just about any other place
I’ve looked,” said Unz, the chairman of a group called English for the
Children. “We’re seriously exploring the possibility of putting a measure like
Proposition 227 on the ballot in New York City.” He is considering sponsoring a
petition drive to urge a referendum on an amendment to the City Charter.
Unz tested the local sentiment for a version of Proposition 227 by
commissioning a poll asking whether all public school classes should be taught
in English, with non-English-speaking students placed in an intensive one-year
English immersion program (instead of the native-language classes now offered
in bilingual education programs). Of the 1,411 residents of New York State
polled by Zogby International, 79 percent said yes. Among New York City
residents, 75 percent said yes.
The poll results may seem strange if you are under the popular impression
that New York’s many immigrants are clamoring for bilingual education. In fact,
immigrants generally want English. In national poll by Public Agenda, a
nonpartisan research organization in New York, 75 percent of foreign-born
parents said the schools’ first priority should be to teach English quickly,
even if that means that their children fall behind in other subjects.
Bilingual programs, begun as a well-intentioned experiment in the 1960s,
proliferated thanks to federal money and orders from bureaucrats and judges.
With bilingual teachers and theorists comfortably entrenched, the programs
persisted even as parents and researchers concluded that they didn’t work.
Instead of students gradually learning English and switching to mainstream
classes – the ostensible goal of bilingual education – they remained trapped
year after year in native-language classes.
Hispanic parents at a school in Los Angeles got so frustrated in 1996 that
they started a boycott, demanding that their children learn English. The
protest led to Proposition 227, which leading politicians, most major
newspapers and the educational establishment fiercely opposed.
Hispanic advocacy groups called it a threat; many major newspapers
editorialized against it. The initiative was denounced by the federal education
secretary, Richard W. Riley. and the Superintendent of California’s public
schools, Delaine Eastin, said it would cause chaos in the classroom.
teachers predicted trauma for their students.
Unz’s group was vastly outspent by the opposition, whose advertising campaign
was financed by teachers’ unions and by A. Jerrold Perenchio, the chairman of
Univision, the Spanish-language television network that stood to lose viewers
if students began learning English. But in the end, the initiative was approved
by 61 percent of the voters.
The change took effect this past year, and newspapers that had editorialized
against Proposition 227 were soon running front-page headlines like
Only Teaching Is a Surprise Hit.” Teachers around the state marveled at how
quickly students were picking up English. Statewide tests at the end of the
year yielded no evidence of trauma or chaos: the students in the English
immersion classes had made just as much progress in all subjects as the
students in regular classes.
Buoyed by the California results, Unz’s group is supporting reforms
“A ballot initiative is probably the only way to get rid of bilingual
education in New York,” Unz said. “It’s enormously unpopular with the public,
but the City Council and the State Legislature pay more attention to the
special interests that benefit from the program.”
Unz, who lived in Jackson Heights during the early years of his software
business, was not surprised at the borough-by-borough breakdown of his poll.
Bilingual education was opposed by 73 percent of the respondents in Brooklyn,
75 percent in Queens, 84 percent in the Bronx, and 85 percent in Staten Island.
The least opposition, 68 percent, was in Manhattan.
“A lot of liberal intellectuals in Manhattan probably support bilingual
education for ideological reasons,” Unz said. “It sounds like a politically
correct way to help immigrants, and they don’t have enough contact with
immigrants to know the truth. Manhattan intellectuals can afford to support
bilingual education because they’re not personally affected by it. If it were
their own kids, they’d be fighting to get them into English classes.”