I rise in defense of one of California’s most conspicuous liberals.

Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa recently appointed the author of last year’s English for the Children initiative, Ron Unz, to the speaker’s blue-ribbon advisory committee on governmental finance. And when a handful of Latino activists blasted Villaraigosa for his appointment of bilingual education’s most prominent critic, he held his ground.

“We should not reward those who attack and hurt our community like Ron Unz,” said the head of one statewide Latino organization. Another complained: “Unz hasn’t been on our side.”

Villaraigosa’s office defended naming Unz for his “interesting perspective” on government finance. Fair enough. It is probably asking too much of the speaker to go further and defend that which is true: Namely, from early reports, Unz’s activism has resulted in the high potential that English immersion is working for vast numbers of children with previously limited English skills.

Sure, the jury is still out a mere five months into the school year. But after a couple of decades of stutter steps and in many cases outright failure of the education establishment’s vaunted bilingual program, the contrast between old and new is striking.

Credit goes to those previous defenders of bilingual education. Many have come around to be either open enthusiasts of the promise of English immersion or at least have kept an open mind — more than can be said of the predictably bitter attacks on Villaraigosa. Even though early evidence is anecdotal, it is impressive.

Last month, The Times conducted interviews at 13 Los Angeles Unified School District campuses with large immigrant populations and reported that “primary grade teachers said their students are absorbing verbal English at a surprising pace.”

* Jose Posada, bilingual education coordinator at a Koreatown school, said: “Many of us who believed in the bilingual education program were scared about the unknowns. Now we’re saying, ‘Well, maybe it’s not so bad. Maybe it’s time we start talking about the positives.’ ”

* Yomy Duran, a second-grade teacher, observed: “I expected that their self-esteem would be affected, and that they would feel inhibited, give up easily. Instead, they are excited, motivated.”

* Add this from Jesus Romero, a bilingual education coordinator in South-Central L.A.: “In my opinion, our students are learning academic English faster than anticipated.”

* “We’re very pleased and surprised. Our first-graders are reading in English,” commented Gail Reed, director of the English+ program in La Habra.

What a long way we’ve come from the postelection ugliness that marked the passage of Proposition 227 in June when one East L.A. teacher announced that it would “force us to be saboteurs.” Clearly, thousands of committed teachers and administrators rose to the challenge, put their shoulders to the wheel, and put in the effort to make the new structure work. Moreover, it’s also very likely that, despite the unity in the public school community over many issues, we know that vast numbers of working teachers had contempt for a program they saw to be failing. Bureaucratic inertia kept it alive until 61% of Californians, including nearly four out of 10 Latinos, voted to give our kids a better choice.

But the past is past, and how much better it would be if we could witness the early demise of the ill temperament which unreasonably equates wanting our schoolchildren to master English with anti-immigrant sentiment. If some of the children are “excited and motivated,” and children are learning academic English “faster than anticipated,” what good is it for recalcitrants to continue their divisive drumbeat?

Gregory Rodriguez, a fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy whose trenchant commentary about Latino politics is a must for understanding California’s changing demographics, writes that the short-lived outrage over the Unz appointment represented a maturing diversity in Latino leadership circles. Villaraigosa told Rodriguez: “I’m not interested in continuing the culture wars. I want to come up with legislative solutions to problems.”

Progress depends on both sides, and this is a very good time for the Democratic speaker’s olive branch to be met by activist Republican outreach to the Latino community. Neither side needs to relinquish its principles to make good things happen.

Smart little kids gobbling up English and ignoring adult political squabbles should give us all hope for finding common ground when the times call for it.

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Kenneth L. Khachigian is a veteran political strategist and former, White House speech writer who practices law in Orange County. His column, appears here every other week



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