Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who financed the initiatives that ended bilingual education in both California and Arizona, may turn his attention to Colorado in 2002.
He thought about running one here during the last cycle, but backed off in late 1999 after being advised that he probably wouldn’t have enough time to get through the inevitable legal challenges and collect the necessary signatures before last August’s deadline.
He was surprised, then, to see Linda Chavez, the future not-quite labor secretary, and her One Nation Indivisible organization launch their own anti-bilingual campaign about the time he opted out. Of course it foundered,
just as his allies predicted. Chavez had to start collecting signatures before the state Supreme Court finished its review, and when it ruled July 10 that the title was misleading, the early signatures became invalid. There was not enough time to start all over.
Unz, in Denver Friday, said he will probably try a different strategy to promote his cause. “I can’t move forward without credible local support,” he said. By that it was clear he meant to attract at least as many liberals as conservatives. Chavez’s effort, by contrast, was immediately associated with conservatives.
Not that he expects the support of the establishment in either party. He said the backers of bilingual education outspent him 25-to-1 in California and 10-to-1 in Arizona, but he won both states with over 60 percent of the vote.
Unz, whose group is called English for the Children, expects to gain allegiance primarily by promoting the positive results that were produced by his initiatives. Last summer The New York Times front-paged the striking improvement in test scores garnered by former bilingual ed students who immersed themselves in English “as if it were a cold bath” after the 1998 vote. By the time Colorado might vote, he expects even more reassuring statistics to be available.
He’ll have to make his go/no go decision for Colorado by this summer, 16-18 months ahead of the election. Meanwhile he’ll also be working on a local initiative for New York City, the ultimate bastion of liberalism, which has an off-year election this fall. As the saying goes, if he can make it there,
he can make it anywhere.
He concedes that one element working against him is that although the Colorado bilingual program has problems, it’s not quite as bad as the one that was operated in California, where only 5 to 6 percent of the students learned passable English each year.
He’s not afraid of a court challenge should the initiative pass. The challenge in California was rejected by the courts, and the opponents in Arizona — which is in the same federal circuit — haven’t even launched one.
In California and Arizona, Unz said, “my main goal was not whether it won,
but how it won. I wanted it to be seen as a unifying, not divisive issue.”
In other words, he doesn’t welcome the support of those who are anti-immigrant or anti-Latino.
He maintains that the abolition of bilingual education isn’t a partisan issue. In California the initiative was opposed by most top Republicans and Democrats, all the unions and most of the major papers. Yet the issue won anyway. “The issue cuts across all ethnic and ideological lines,” he maintains. “It divides the elites from the ordinary folks.”
Fortunately, he had the support of the ordinary folks, and there were more of them.
Peter Blake’s column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. You can reach him at
(303) 892-5119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.